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She Sells Seashells and Mary Anning: Metafolklore with a Twist

Was Mary Anning the inspiration for “she sells seashells on the seashore?” We’ll take a closer look in this post. The picture is an 1850 pastel drawing by B. J. M. Donne, who knew Mary Anning personally, and is itself a copy of a painting done in 1842 by an unknown artist. This version resides in the Geological Society in London, and the image is in the public domain.

A little while back, the internet was abuzz with the inspirational story of Mary Anning, a pioneering 19th-century paleontologist from Lyme Regis in England. Some of my favorite blogs and magazines got in on the act: Atlas Obscura, QI (Quite Interesting), Dangerous Women, Cracked, and Forbes, to name just a few, published versions of the Mary Anning story. Anning was a woman from a working-class family; her father, a cabinetmaker, was mentioned by Jane Austen in 1804. Despite her lack of formal education, Anning was involved in the discovery of several categories of ancient animals, including the ichthyosaur, the plesiosaur, and the pterosaur. She also figured out that some of the rocks she was finding and breaking open were fossilized feces, becoming one of the discoverers of the coprolite! Because she was a woman, and working class, and a religious minority to boot, she was not always recognized for her achievements, and many of her discoveries were published by Anglican male scientists. [1]

Normally, I’d love the way this story spread. It has everything: pioneer women scientists, Regency and Victorian England, beachcombing, fossils…it’s like Pride and Prejudice at the beach, with feminism, dinosaurs, and poop jokes. What’s not to like?

To be honest, there was one problem: the hook on which most of these blogs hung their story was the assertion that Mary Anning was the inspiration for the tongue twister “she sells seashells on the seashore.” Most of them even included the tongue-twister connection in the title of the blog post. But none of them provided any evidence for their claim.

This struck me (and several of my folklorist friends from the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research) as a cousin to the story that “Ring Around the Rosie” is related to the plague. (As I pointed out in a previous post, it’s not.) Like the plague story, the tale of Mary Anning and the tongue twister claims that a fascinating but little known history lurks behind a folklore item that practically everyone knows. Like the plague story, it’s a folk story about a piece of folklore, which is what folklorists sometimes call “metafolklore.” It’s also a folk story that purports to be a truthful account of events in the past…in other words, what we typically call a legend. As such, the tale may tell us more about ourselves than it does about history…and it’s likely to tell us a lot.

The Story

This photo illustration of the tongue twister was created by L. Filipe de los Santos and placed on Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

Each of the blogs celebrating Mary Anning tells a version of the same basic story. QI puts forth the strongest version of the claim:

Victorian fossil hunter Mary Anning was the inspiration for the tongue twister ‘She Sells Sea Shells.’ It was originally a song, with words by Terry Sullivan and music by Harry Gifford, written in 1908, inspired by Mary Anning’s life:

She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure.
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells.

Though they make the claim forcefully, they provide the weakest evidence for a connection between Anning and the tongue twister: none at all, not even a link to another version of the claim.

Mental Floss hedges its claim a little, making the headline that she “may have” inspired the tongue twister, and stating that the connection is “widely believed”:

In 1908, songwriter Terry Sullivan—who penned a number of catchy ballads for British music halls—wrote a song widely believed to be about Anning’s life whose lyrics have since been recited by just about every English-speaking person on Earth:

‘She sells seashells on the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure,
For if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I’m sure she sells sea shore shells.’

Mental Floss’s blogger, Mark Mancini, does a good job of supporting many of his other points about Anning’s life and work with links to primary source documents, academic articles, and even the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox. But he gives no evidence that Terry Sullivan wrote his song about Mary Anning. Still, elsewhere he makes a more positive statement, clear of the hedging phrases “widely believed” and “may have”:

Years after her death, her legacy would live on in the English language’s most famous tongue twister: She sells seashells by the seashore.

Novelist Tracy Chevalier is among those who believe that the tongue twister is based on Mary Anning. This photo was taken by T_Marjorie and posted to Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

Atlas Obscura takes a different approach. The headline seems to make a strong claim: “The Scrappy Female Paleontologist Whose Life Inspired a Tongue Twister.” But the post itself, by Tao Tao Holmes, rather weakly asserts that “it’s often said that she was the real-life inspiration behind the famous tongue twister.” Holmes doesn’t directly tell the story of Sullivan’s song, but the article she links to in support of the claim does. It’s an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered with Tracy Chevalier, an author I happen to admire. Chevalier wrote the novel Remarkable Creatures about Mary Anning. The NPR piece includes this passage:

“She sells seashells by the seashore,” recites Chevalier. The tongue twister, she believes, was created in 1908 as a tribute to Mary Anning, even though Anning sold mostly fossils.

Why does Chevalier believe this? Does the NPR host, Mary Louise Kelly, believe it too? The story doesn’t say.

Cracked gives perhaps the funniest version of the story, in their inimitable and irreverent style:

As time went on, she became a little bit famous for selling old crap down at the market — some guy named Terry Sullivan even came up with the famous tongue twister “she sells seashells from the seashore” because of her (seriously, the rhyme is about Anning). But she wasn’t one to get stuck selling silly seashells for the rest of her life. Anning was about to do something much bigger.

Despite occasional hedging by individual bloggers, then, it looks like the internet origin story for “she sells seashells on the seashore” (or “by” or “from” the seashore) is pretty clear and consistent: it was created in 1908 by Terry Sullivan, and was originally part of a song, which was “about,” “inspired by,” or “a tribute to” Mary Anning. [1]

I should point out that it’s not only on blogs that you’ll find the claim about Mary Anning inspiring Sullivan to write a tongue twister. Many books make the claim, including children’s books, science books, history books, travel books, and even biographies of Anning.

Some book authors have been more careful, however. Thomas Goodhue, author of Fossil Hunter: The Life and Times of Mary Anning, wrote:

It is sometimes claimed she inspired Terry Sullivan’s famous tongue twister of 1908: ‘She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore …’ There is little evidence for this, however….

Goodhue is being polite: there is, as far as I can tell, no evidence for this, but the story lives on.

Claims and Evidence

As I said, the sites that tell the story of Mary Anning and Terry Sullivan’s tongue twister give no evidence for their claim. At best, they link to other versions of the claim.

Not dead yet! The existence of many examples of a claim that Paul McCartney died in 1966 didn’t stop the Library of Congress from giving him the Gershwin Prize, and it didn’t stop him from playing in the Coolidge Auditorium June 1, 2010. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis for the Library of Congress.

The distinction between claims and evidence is an important one. It may be “often said” (as Atlas Obscura put it) that Mary Anning inspired the tongue twister, but that isn’t evidence that it’s true. As Mental Floss‘s Mark Mancini knows all too well, it’s often said that the moon is made of cheese, but our colleagues at NASA are not planning a huge fondue party. “Often said” really just means a lot of people make the claim, not that it’s true, or supported by any evidence.

Remember, there were a large number of claims that Sinbad appeared in a movie called Shazaam, that a popular D.C. pizza restaurant was a front for child sex trafficking in 2016, that a babysitter baked and/or ate a baby, and that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by an impostor. But all these stories are false, despite the many claims. Hoaxes, legends, “fake news,” and false memories can all lead to people making such claims, so despite a lot of people making any given claim, there still may not be any real evidence for it.

So, what would count as evidence that Terry Sullivan was influenced by Mary Anning? We might look for two principal kinds of evidence, direct and circumstantial. Direct evidence could include (for example) a letter or essay from Sullivan saying that he had been influenced by Anning’s story, or the testimony of a witness who heard Sullivan say so. Circumstantial evidence might include the existence of other writings by Sullivan about Anning, which would establish that he knew and cared about her story, or a long residence by Sullivan in Lyme Regis, where people might have remembered her in his time. But none of the bloggers gives any such evidence.

Another way in which historians often divide their evidence is into primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. This is a different way of thinking about evidence, and also valuable to consider. A government record indicating that Terry Sullivan was born in Lyme Regis would be a primary source, and it would be direct evidence of the claim that he was born there. But it would still only be circumstantial evidence of his knowing anything about Mary Anning. Typically, to make a strong claim, we want to see a primary source that is also direct evidence, such as a letter from Sullivan stating that Mary Anning was his inspiration. In fact, when a secondary source makes the claim in a forceful way that Sullivan was inspired by Anning, like QI does, it actually assumes the existence of such a primary source, because the existence of such a source is the only way such a fact could be known. But no such primary source is ever produced or even described by any of the people making this particular claim.

When the people making a claim can’t tell you what the evidence is (beyond the fact that other people also make the claim), it should raise your suspicions. It’s one of the big “red flags” that tells you a story may not be supported by evidence. This is because direct primary-source evidence isn’t complicated; if there were such evidence, all the blogs would have to say is (for example), “a letter Terry Sullivan wrote in 1908 shows that he was inspired by Mary Anning.” The fact that they can’t make such a simple statement suggests there may be no evidence behind the claim.

What about the oral tradition as evidence? As I pointed out, oral tradition carries all kinds of stories, true and untrue. Oral tradition can be evidence, but not all oral sources should be given equal weight. If an interviewee told an oral historian that he heard that Mary Anning was the inspiration for the song from his grandfather, who in turn specifically said he heard the story in 1908, we might accept this as circumstantial evidence. If the grandfather claimed to have heard the story from Terry Sullivan, it approaches direct evidence, but because it’s at one remove, even then it wouldn’t be considered conclusive. As it is, none of the bloggers gives this kind of testimony, just links to a network of contemporary people citing one another as sources.

On the other hand, there’s plenty of counter-evidence that disproves the specific claims made by these bloggers. This is where more diligent historical sleuthing (or a call to their local folklore expert) could have helped them out.

For example, was the tongue twister that begins ”she sells sea shells” “originally a song, with words by Terry Sullivan and music by Harry Gifford, written in 1908,” as QI claimed? No, it wasn’t. The phrase is a piece of folklore, which existed in many versions and variants before Sullivan got his hands on it. He transformed it into a song, but it was already a well known folk saying in 1908.

Alexander Melville Bell, who poses here with his wife Eliza Grace Symonds and their granddaughter Elsie May Bell at Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia, is the first author I have found to publish the phrase “she sells sea shells.” Bell was an expert on speech and elocution, and the father of inventor Alexander Graham Bell. This is a detail from the original photo in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, which you can find at this link.

The first version I’ve been able to find of the phrase “she sells sea shells” comes from 1855, in the book Letters and Sounds: An Introduction to English Reading by Alexander Melville Bell (page 98), where it was published as an elocution exercise. In 1871, in the December 1 Christmas number of The Family Herald; a Domestic Magazine of Useful Information and Amusement (page 848), it appears among other tongue-twisters under the heading “Alliterative Puzzles.” This is the first version I’ve found where it’s published for amusement rather than instruction. In both of these early cases, it is simply the four words “she sells sea shells.”

This evidence immediately disproves QI‘s claim, since that blog states that the four-word version of the tongue twister originated in Sullivan’s song. But most of the other blogs just say that the longer version, “she sells seashells on the seashore” originated in the song and was inspired by Anning. To find out if that’s possible, we need to look at the development of the tongue twister a little bit.

By the mid-1870s, versions of the phrase became common in elocution manuals, teaching manuals, newspapers, and magazines. By 1878, the tongue twister had another clause, sometimes expressed as a second complete sentence: “She sells sea shells. Shall he sell sea shells?” It was published this way in J.W. Shoemaker’s Practical Elocution: For Use in Colleges and Schools and by Private Students. From there, many other early versions asking “shall [someone] sell sea shells” developed, some of which even began with someone other than “she,” sometimes a proper name, and other times “he.” None of these early references, however, specifies that she is at, on, or by the seashore. So did Terry Sullivan add that bit?

No, he didn’t. The first version of the phrase that I’ve been able to find with that detail is “she sells seashells at the sea shore.” It was published this way in the September 1898 issue of Werner’s Magazine—10 years before Sullivan’s song. In the early 20th century this wording became quite common, appearing in books and newspapers many times between 1898 and 1908.

The September, 1898 Werner’s Magazine contains the first reference I’ve found to combine “She sells seashells” with “at the seashore.”

So, between 1855 and 1908, as folklore usually does, this tongue twister came to exist in many versions and variants. Here are just a few:

He sells sea shells. Shall she sell sea shells? Shall she sell sea shells because he sells sea shells? (1886)

If neither he sells seashells, nor she sells sea-shells, who shall sell seashells? Shall sea-shells be sold? (1888)

She sells sea shells saucily (1895; New Orleans Daily Picayune Monday, April 1; pg. 4)

She says she sells sea shells (1896; Atchison [Kansas] Daily Globe, Thursday, March 26, pg. 3)

She sells seashells at the sea shore. Shall Susan sell seashells? (1898)

She sells seashells, shunning society while the shells she sells (1902)

She sells seashells by the seashore. (1905; column 4)

Clearly, by the time Terry Sullivan came to use it in his song, “she sells seashells” was a widespread folklore item that existed in many variants over a period of over 50 years, and maybe considerably more. In many versions, it’s a he that sells seashells, making it impossible for those versions to be referring to Mary Anning. [2]

What about QI’s second claim, that the song was “inspired by Mary Anning’s life,” or Mental Floss’s claim that it might be “about Anning’s life?” To an impartial observer, this claim doesn’t stand up either. There’s no trace of Mary Anning, Lyme Regis, or (alas) plesiosaurs in the song. The song was recorded in Britain by Wilkie Bard and in America by Billy Murray. Below you can hear Murray’s version in the player, followed by the original lyrics:

Billy Murray, pictured here with Aileen Stanley, was one of Victor’s most popular recording artists in the early 20th Century. The photo is undated, but the recording it advertises was released in 1923. See the original photo here! [//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.02588 ]

I’ve just had a letter to say I’m engaged
To appear in the pantomime.
The part I’ve to play is the principal boy,
So I’m in for a beautiful time.

The panto’s “Dick Whittington,” I’m dirty Dick,
The fellow who once rode to York.
The manager says I must get a good song,
About which the public will talk.

I’ve commissioned some authors
To write me a song.
A very fine chorus
They’ve sent me along:

She sells seashells on the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure,
For if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

The seashells she sells are a terrible sell;
And the song is a “sell” also.
The authors both say it will go very big,
But I fear I am all that will go!

I’ve suffered from lockjaw, and stickjaw as well,
In trying this chorus to sing.
It’s making me lisp, but I shay to myshelf,
“The shong’s sure to go with a shwing.”

I’m dreaming of seashells when I am in bed,
I only wish she would sell matches instead!

She sells seashells on the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure,
For if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

As you can see, what the song is actually about is a music-hall performer who gets a good role and wants to sing a catchy sing-along so he can score a hit song. His songwriters instead supply an unpronounceable chorus, and hilarity ensues.

This fossilized ammonite is the type of item Mary Anning sold from her shop in Lyme Regis. The photo was taken in 2008 by Paleoymas, and shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

In other words, the main premise of the song is simply that the phrase “she sells sea shells on the seashore” is hard to say. There’s not even a real female character in the song, let alone anyone recognizable as Mary Anning. This makes Tracy Chevalier’s idea that it’s a “tribute” to Anning particularly strange: if it’s a tribute, why doesn’t it describe Anning’s accomplishments? What kind of tribute mentions only one insignificant detail about the person being celebrated, while telling a story about a completely different person?

Oh, and about that one detail: there are some inconvenient facts that proponents of Mary Anning’s connection to the tongue twister rarely mention. First, Mary Anning did not sell seashells, she sold fossils. This fact is alluded to by NPR when it says that Tracy Chevalier believes the rhyme is about Anning “even though Anning sold mostly fossils.” In fact, according to Anning expert Hugh Torrens [3], she sold only fossils, despite Tracy Chevalier claiming she “did indeed” sell seashells and Atlas Obscura repeating the claim. Since many of the fossils were fossilized shells, there is some wiggle room here, but generally we wouldn’t say someone “sold plants” or “sold fish” if the plants and fish she sold were fossilized. Mary Anning also didn’t sell anything “on the seashore.” She sold fossils first from a table outside her cottage, and then from shops in Broad Street and Bridge Street, Lyme Regis. All the locations were near but not on the seashore.

These facts, while they don’t make the claim about Terry Sullivan’s inspiration impossible, certainly show that there’s a very imperfect fit between the details of the song and those of Mary Anning’s life. (In fact, the older variant of the rhyme, “BY the seashore,” would have fit Anning’s life a bit better.)

One of Mary Anning’s fossil shops was the fourth building from the right in this illustration of Broad Street running into Bridge Street in Lyme Regis. She did not sell seashells on the seashore exactly, but fossils from shops in this seaside town. This illustration by an unknown artist was published in 1844 and is therefore in the public domain. Many of these buildings are still standing and recognizable today!

So, if he wasn’t inspired by Mary Anning, why would Terry Sullivan write a song based on this kind of phrase? The answer is simple. On the English music-hall and American vaudeville circuits, songs based on folk sayings such as proverbs, nursery rhymes, and tongue twisters were a popular subgenre. In Library of Congress collections, for example, you can also find tongue twisting songs “The Tick Tack Tocking of the Clocking on her Stocking,” “A Singer Sang a Song (and Here’s the Song the Singer Sang),” “Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers,” and my personal favorite, “Which Switch Is the Switch, Miss, for Ipswich?” [4]

Given all this, there’s no reason to suppose that Terry Sullivan was inspired by Mary Anning. There’s no evidence he knew about Anning, nothing in the song’s verses resembles her life, and the “she” of the chorus has only a very slight resemblance to her. The evidence simply shows that Terry Sullivan used an already-popular tongue twister to create a humorous song, something that was common at the time.

Many people cite this book as a source that “she sells sea shells” is about Mary Anning. In truth, it merely says that she is “reputed to be the subject” of the tongue twister. The photo is a “shelfie” by Stephen Winick.

The idea that Mary Anning is connected directly to the tongue twister appears to be a little older than the specific claim that she inspired Sullivan’s song. The oldest such claim I can find cites as its source the 1977 book Henry De La Beche: Observations on an Observer by Paul J. McCartney, and Wikipedia cites the same book. Yet the book, which is obscure and hard to find (I had to buy a used copy online from a bookshop in Wales in order to read it), only says that she is “reputed to be the subject” of the tongue twister, and gives no source or evidence.

Again, though, there is some counter-evidence. First of all, as I already mentioned, she didn’t exactly sell seashells, or do it on the seashore. Moreover, she lived her entire life in Lyme Regis, in the south of England. The first reference to the tongue twister comes from Alexander Melville Bell, the father of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who was a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and still lived there in 1855. This means that, although it’s certainly true that anyone might have heard of Mary Anning, there is no obvious connection between her and early appearances of the tongue twister.

More importantly, the claim that she was connected to the phrase didn’t emerge until McCartney’s 1977 book, at which time no one could articulate a source. To paraphrase my analysis of the “Ring Around the Rosie” story, before accepting the 1977 claim as any kind of evidence, scholars today would want to know: how did the first person who claimed a connection between Mary Anning and the tongue twister find out about that connection, and why can’t we find whatever evidence he or she had? Until such evidence turns up, it seems likely that person just guessed.

So we come back to the same place: she is “said” or “reputed” or “thought” to be behind the tongue twister, but it turns out there’s just no evidence.

Mary and the Modern World

In the Natural History Museum in London, some of Mary Anning’s finds are on display with a label that not only identifies her by name but includes her picture. This picture of one of her plesiosaurs was taken by Jtweedie1976 and shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons license. I have cropped it slightly from the original.

This blog is called Folklife Today because we believe folklore and folklife are not just about the past; they are also, and most crucially, about the present. This is even true of many legends that we think are about the past. For instance, Ruth Finnegan explained how an African story she studied, supposedly an accurate historical account of the founding of the kingdom of Gonja in northern Ghana, instead reflected modern politics:

One version of this was recorded around 1900, a period at which Gonja was divided into seven administrative divisions. The story tells how the state was first founded by a certain Jakpa who came to the area in search of gold, conquered the local inhabitants and became king by right of conquest; his seven sons and their descendants became the seven divisional chiefs. About 1960 the “same” story was recorded again. By that date two of the old divisions had disappeared, leaving only five; and the tale speaks of only five sons, with no mention at all of the other two. A narrative like this is obviously influenced as much by present realities and power relationships as by historical considerations.

Finnegan’s example shows us that folk stories which are in one sense about the past, are still, in other important ways, about the here and now. We tell such historical legends only because they have some relevance to us. That relevance is a big part of the stories’ meaning, and (more crucially for us) often affects the “facts” they tell us as well. So it’s important to ask what the story of Mary Anning and the tongue twister tells us about today’s world. Why is this an appealing story to tell in the 21st century, and which of today’s realities does it reflect?

In looking into the story of “Ring Around the Rosie” and the plague, I found that it had special significance for medievalists, medical historians, and a few other kinds of storytellers. In the same way, we find the story of “She Sells Seashells” told especially often by certain kinds of writers. Paleontologists, historians of science, and advocates for the town of Lyme Regis are always looking for a new hook to get people interested in their particular corner of the world, so they like to tell this tale. They’re relying on the inherent appeal of being able to say, “you already know something about my pet topic, you just don’t KNOW you know about it.”

Science teachers love the story for the same reason. The fact that students already know the tongue twister provides them a way to connect the story of a pioneering scientist to an aspect of their students’ own culture. In a March, 2006, article in The American Biology Teacher, Renee M. Clary and James H. Wandersee reveal their strategy for using Mary Anning’s story in the classroom. They provide a scripted “Interactive Historical Vignette (IHV)”, whose script includes:

In the 1800s, most women were barred from actively participating in the scientific community because of their gender. However, there were a few women who did manage to contribute to the sciences in spite of the barriers that surrounded them. Has anyone heard of Mary Anning? (Check for student response.) You have probably been exposed to Mary Anning even if you do not remember her. Do you remember learning, “She sells sea shells by the seashore?” (Check for student response.) Well, that tongue twister refers to Mary Anning!

Here is a legible version of the caption label on display with Mary Anning’s fossils in the Natural History Museum in London. This photo was taken by “B” in August, 2012, and posted to Flickr with a Creative Commons License that allowed us to crop it to show just the label. (The portrait on the label is in the public domain.) To read it, click the photo to enlarge it!

Another dynamic contributes to the popularity of the Mary Anning story: web publishers love stories that claim to reveal unknown facts about everyday things. It’s a short step from the claim that you’ve been eating bananas wrong your whole life or that you see these objects every day but never knew their true purpose to the claim that you’ve been saying a tongue twister your whole life without knowing what it’s really about, or even that “This Famous Tongue Twister is Actually About Dinosaurs.”

As I’ve said before:

Folklorists know better than anyone the fascination with things that are older than they seem, and with “extraordinary origins of everyday things.” Some founders of the discipline of folklore espoused the theory of survivals, which held that cultural materials such as nursery rhymes preserved information from the past that was otherwise forgotten. To adherents of this theory, a shard of pottery, a riddle, or a child’s jingle could be the key that unlocked the mythology of the distant past, and the folklorist’s task was to interpret or decode the cryptic messages within these fragments.

Although folklorists didn’t give their articles titles like “Bet You Didn’t Know This Crazy Old Folksong is Actually About Human Sacrifice,” in other ways nineteenth-century folklore scholarship was not so different from the blogosphere.

I think the most important reason for the Mary Anning story’s popularity is that it fills a current social need for the recognition of pioneering women scientists. In the current decade, women’s historical contributions to science are being lifted out of obscurity and celebrated. Many books, government initiatives, archival projects, and even reference tools from the Library of Congress have been putting more emphasis on the role of women in creating, discovering, and transforming all areas of science and engineering. In pop culture, the film Hidden Figures highlights the contributions of African American women to the space program, while a film currently in production will tell the story of Marie Curie, and scripts are being shopped around Hollywood about Rosalind Franklin and others. A TV commercial imagines a world in which physicist Millie Dresselhaus is a celebrity. The feeling in the culture generally is that women scientists have not been given their due, and that it’s our responsibility to remedy that.

Atlas Obscura highlights this in its title, calling Anning a “Scrappy Female Paleontologist.” Dangerous Women, too, highlights her role as a woman of science, with the potential to change the world. Laura Casely, at Little Things, writes:

In the early 19th century, there weren’t many options for scientifically minded women, especially poor ones.

But as women throughout history have always proved, if you have the will, you can do anything, even if society says you can’t.

Mary Anning is buried with her brother Joseph in Lyme Regis. People leave offerings at her grave, not only of flowers, but of fossils. This photo was taken by Greg Miller in 2015. He shared it to Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

This current trend is one I wholeheartedly support, and it explains why there’s a hunger for the Mary Anning story. One of the earliest woman pioneers of the modern scientific era, Anning is someone modern people can relate to more easily than, say, mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria (ca. 360-415) or even entomologist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). It’s easy for today’s women to put themselves in Anning’s shoes as she faces the institutional sexism of nineteenth-century academia and the steamrolling and mansplaining she endured from individual colleagues. [5] But none of this fully explains why the story needed the extra hook of the tongue twister.

Mancini’s article in Mental Floss provides a clue to the connection between her story as a reflection of modern needs and the presence of the folklore angle. He laments the fact that Mary Anning did not become more famous than she did, partly because male scientists exploited her findings:

[William] Conybeare stole the show with a well-received presentation on the nearly complete Plesiosaurus from Lyme Regis. That same year, he published a paper on the specimen featuring detailed original illustrations. Neither his presentation nor his paper mentioned Anning by name. Conybeare was just one of many scientists who furthered their own careers by writing papers about fossils that Anning had found. They rarely gave her credit, and to make matters worse, she couldn’t publish her own findings in reputable journals because their editors didn’t accept submissions from women.

Then, just before launching into the “she sells sea shells” story, Mancini tells us:

You might not be familiar with Anning’s name, but you’ve certainly heard of her, even if you didn’t realize it.

Mancini has rhetorically demonstrated an important part of the story’s appeal. First, he’s made us wish that Mary Anning had gotten more fame and recognition. Then, he’s fulfilled that wish by telling us that we’ve all been singing her praises our whole lives, we just didn’t know it.

Folklorists have long recognized that many legends deliver “poetic justice.” [6] In such stories, the bad get punished and the good get rewarded, often in a way that is surprising or ironic. A man who wrongly assumes that his wife is cheating ruins a present she bought for him; the café that price-gouges for a recipe has a disgruntled customer publish it so people can get it for free; the good Samaritan gets a huge reward after unknowingly helping a celebrity. This is what folklorist Sandy Hobbs calls in psychological terms a “positive outcome,” or “reinforcement”: we want people to get what they deserve, so we enjoy stories in which that happens. It’s a form of wish-fulfillment, and many legends deliver it.

The story of Mary Anning, while it’s inspirational in many ways, doesn’t have a really satisfying ending. After all, Anning died young and got insufficient recognition in her own time. Instead, the Anning story gets its happy ending in the here and now. As Mancini puts it:

Anning—long overlooked by her contemporaries—is finally getting her due. The self-taught paleontologist is now a revered figure in paleontology circles.

Which brings us back to “She Sells Seashells.” We want Anning to be famous. Mancini tells us that she’s “now a revered figure in paleontology circles,” but that still isn’t the same as being a household word. In other words, even in the present day, she hasn’t exactly become a celebrity. I think this is one reason the legend adds the detail of the tongue twister, which does elevate her to the level of a household word. Thanks to “She Sells Seashells,” it says, Mary Anning has actually had her well-deserved celebrity all along.

In the end, even though there’s no evidence for it, the legend of Mary Anning inspiring “She Sells Seashells” is poetic justice in a very literal sense: a woman who deserves fame gets celebrated in a poem so famous we all know it. The legend is also metafolklore with a delightful twist. It tells us that we’ve been recognizing the accomplishments of an important and underappreciated woman ever since we were kids, every time we recited that magical little poem, “She sells seashells by the seashore.”

Notes

  1. Anning was a Congregationalist, a protestant sect which was counted among the original “nonconformist” groups when England adopted the Act of Uniformity in 1662. Nonconformists were barred from many rights and privileges, including attendance at major universities, ability to marry and be buried where they wished, and civil service careers at both the national and local levels. Many of these “civil disabilities” were repealed during her lifetime, but some remained on the books until after her death. Most of them remained in place until 1828, when she was 29 years old.
  2. As is often the case with folklore, the variability of the phrase makes it difficult to search for it in databases. Both the words “seashells” and “seashore” are sometimes expressed as two words, creating four possible variants, while the possibility that they’re “on,” “at,” or “by” the seashore increases this to twelve. Add all the other ways it varies, and you’ll see that it’s easy to miss variants of the phrase and instances of its occurrence. Needless to say, I probably didn’t find all the variants of the phrase or its earliest appearance, but what I did find serves to disprove the notion that Terry Sullivan created the phrase.
  3. Torrens’s statement was made at a 1999 symposium and cited in Thomas Goodhue’s biography Fossil Hunter: The Life and Times of Mary Anning.
  4. One of the greatest performers to emerge from the vaudeville circuit and become a movie star, Danny Kaye, recorded an elaborate tongue-twister song, which refers to “she sells seashells” as follows: “Sheila is selling her shop at the seashore, for shops at the seashore are so sure to lose. Now she’s not so sure of what she should be selling; should Sheila sell seashells or should she sell shoes?” His collection at the Library of Congress includes a manuscript of the original score. You can hear the song at YouTube.
  5. At the risk of saying “not all men,” I’ll point out that her story also includes male friends who supported her, sung her praises, and helped her through financial rough spots, so it’s not completely embarrassing to modern men!
  6. Sandy Hobbs identified “poetic justice” as perhaps the most important theme of contemporary legends in “The Social Psychology of a ‘Good’ Story,” published in 1987. The article is available online in this book-length pdf.

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