Growing up, kids spent a lot of time on the playground. (Though, we hope that is still happening today, in the digital era.)
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Doing so, there are many games, from blacktop kickball and clapping to the recitation of rhymes like “Miss Mary Mack” and, the subject of today’s inquiry, “Miss Susie Had a Steamboat.”
But what does this popular rhyming game mean, exactly? And what is the meaning of its history?
Let’s dive into all of that.
This popular schoolyard rhyme has many names, from “Miss Susie had a Steamboat” to “Hello Operator” to “Miss Suzy” to even “Miss Lucy.”
The reason this one became so favored is because of its cheeky verses, which almost always lead to a bit of profanity or a rude term or two. But the magic of the rhyme is that the profane word is dulled by the next phrase, which takes the bite out of the teeth.
Originally, this rhyme was used for when kids would jump rope so as to keep the fun going and simultaneously create rhythm to follow with each jump, jump, jump.
Today, though, the rhyme is used just as often in “clapping games,” where children keep rhythm by using hand claps that they do on their own or in unison with others. Moreover, sometimes hand signals come into play, like the ringing of an invisible bell.
The rhyme was born from others like it, including “Bang Bang Rosie” from the U.K., and “Bang Away Lulu” from the hillbilly locale of Appalachia. Sometimes a woman with an alligator purse is involved, sometimes Susan B. Anthony makes an appearance, or on other occasions even more unique characters come into play.
The Rhyme Scheme
The verse is arranged in quatrains with a common A-B-C-B rhyme scheme. But what makes the verses unique here are the taboo phrases and terms used (as you can see below). And these phrases are dovetailed or cut off by the following quatrain’s beginning. This style is known as enjambed double entendre.
Because the rhyme is so common on the playground and because children can be so creative, there are any number of verses to the song, some wildly known, others not so much. Terms common amongst many versions are “switchboard operators,” “World Wars,” “buttons” and more.
For those that don’t know, a switchboard operator is a telephone operator from way back before smartphones.
The Rhyme’s Meaning and Development
The earliest recorded version of the rhyme, which is all about a girl named Mary, appears in vaudeville, from the early 20th century.
Later versions began popping up in the middle of the 20th century as public schools became more and more popular and normalized.
As the rhyme became more and more popular, the references became more and more silly, involving embellishments. Popular topics include kissing, boys in bathrooms, bras, lying, crazy family members, foreign spies and more.
Later recordings include “Miss Lucy Had Some Leeches” by Emilie Autumn and “Mrs. Landers Was a Health Nut” from the taboo animated television show, South Park.
While myriad versions of the rhyme exist throughout history and playgrounds, below are some of the more commonly remembered quatrains:
Miss Susie had a steamboat,
The steamboat had a bell,
Miss Susie went to heaven,
The steamboat went to…
Please dial Number 9,
And if you disconnect me,
I’ll kick you from…
Behind the ‘frigerator,
There lay a piece of glass,
Miss Susie sat upon it,
And cut her little…
Ask me no more questions,
I’ll tell you no more lies,
The boys are in the bathroom,
Zipping up their…
Flies are in the backyard,
The bees are in the park,
Miss Susie and her boyfriend
Are kissing in the D-A-R-K
Dark, dark, dark
D-A-R-K D-A-R-K dark dark dark
Dark is like a movie,
A movie’s like a show.
A show is like a TV screen,
And that is all I know
I know I know my mother,
I know I know my pa.
I know I know my sister
With the forty acre bra.
As you can see “Hell” is turned into “Hello operator” and the zipper on pants is turned into buzzing “flies” and so forth.
While the verses seem relatively harmless, what’s interesting to note underneath the surface is the growing minds of the children who recite the verses.
This isn’t a rhyme that kindergarteners say, for example. Often, it’s recited by young girls who are in the latter grades of elementary school or the early years of middle school/junior high.
In this way, the rhyme provides a forum for their developing minds to touch on, but not linger on, slightly more mature subject matter, which is part of a growing human being’s life.
In the same way kids often try to sneak downstairs while their parents or older siblings are still up watching movies or playing cards, the rhyme provides a way for developing brains to experience a bit of more mature subject matter.
It’s harmless but also subtly important.
And that’s why this rhyming game, whether played via jumping rope, clapping or just playground recitation has subsisted for so many decades.