April 23, 2020

T is for Tub

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.  Be sure to check out the Master List of my fellow A-Z bloggers.)

Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker.
Turn them out, rogues all three!

        Clearly, the midnight snacks of meat pies and chocolate cake were going to have to stop.
        What are these men doing in the tub?  Why are they rogues?  This is a puzzling one indeed.  I imagine parties that got out of hand: the candlestick-maker brings candles for nighttime light, of course, the butcher brings meat pies, and the baker brings chocolate cake… but it all got a little messy and now they find themselves scrambling to clean up before they all have to get back to work in the morning.
        Most other illustrations show our men sitting in the tub, and often the tub is even afloat, as this one by Reed.  The candlestick-maker trying to use his candlestick for a telescope is a clever touch, but otherwise these wise men could just as well hail from Gotham!  Gwenda Morgan’s interpretation below is of the same school, but I like the way her three men are each distinctly recognizable by their outfits and accoutrements.  Still, why does boating in a tub get them labelled as rogues?
        As it happens, there are versions that explicitly state that the three men were out to sea, so presumably that explains where the illustrators are coming from, even though Reed, for example, doesn’t include the nautical lyrics in the version of the rhyme that’s printed with his nautical illustration.  (Even more baffling, of course, is the version in which they all jump out of a rotten potato!  I can’t even begin to explain that one.  It’s enough to make a man stare, for sure.)
        The earliest printed versions of the rhyme had three maids in a tub, and some scholars suggest that the rhyme is about the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker ogling the maids at a peep show.  “Rub-a-dub-dub,” it is alleged, was “a phonetic association of social disapprobation, analogous to tsk-tsk.”  Well, that may or may not have been so historically, but to me “rub-a-dub-dub” most definitely suggests washing up with plenty of bubbles, so that’s what I’ve illustrated.  (By the way, even when we’re alleging soft porn, no one seems to suggest that the three men were naked together in a hot tub.)
        What reasons can you suggest for being in a tub?  And I don’t need to say “keep it clean,” because it’s a tub full of suds, so of course it’s clean!
        A final note for impressionable children:  Never leave a piece of chocolate cake unattended.

[Pictures: Rub-a-dub-dub, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002 (Image from my book);
Color wood engraving by Philip Reed from Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes, 1963;
Detail from Nursery Rhymes, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1970 (Image from Kevis House).]

11 comments:

Deborah Weber said...

LOL - "never leave a piece of chocolate cake unattended." Indeed! I'm truly loving this series of yours Anne for all sorts of reasons. But certainly one of them is I clearly have a very limited, and obviously quite gapped-filled, grasp on nursery rhymes. I seem to remember only portions, and clearly didn't recall these three being rogues. I definitely like your sudsy version. I had assumed the three were taking a bath together.

John Holton said...

I always thought they were taking a bath...

Kathe W. said...

Perhaps the suds were from the barrel of beer they absconded with? Fun theme- enjoying it!

Frédérique said...

I read all your posts, everyday, but I don't comment when I don't see what to write! I don't know this rhyme, and don't know why these guys are there ;)
T is for Taupe

Lisa said...

Like John, I always pictured them in a bathtub! I don't think the word tub was anything else to me growing up. Of course, there are so many deeper meaning to so many rhymes that are above children's heads. I never wondered why three men would be in the same tub, or what a "knave" was (rogue in your version)!

Kristin said...

I can only half remember these rhymes too. I did people cture them dry and sailing in a tub with their various work outfits on. I wish I had a piece of chocolate cake.

Tui Snider said...

I had a pop up book with this rhyme in it. I used to read it in the bathtub, so I always pictured the men in a floating bathtub, too!

~Tui Snider, @TuiSnider TuiSnider.com - Historic Cemeteries & Symbolism from A to Z

Jade Li said...

Cute prints, all of them.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

Haha, so many possible interpretations... :D

The Multicolored Diary

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Kathe, three men in a keg? This made me laugh.

Frédérique, I do the same on your blog: read them all but comment only on some. I appreciate your stopping by, with or without comments!

Lisa, small children - of the age when they're hearing nursery rhymes - often take baths together anyway, so I think it wouldn't seem at all strange to them that people would be in the bathtub together.

Tui, that's funny to read a pop-up book in the bathtub -- didn't it get wet? And funny that it was a bathtub rhyme for bath time.

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Chocolate cake should never be left unattended ;-)

An A-Z of Faerie: Thin Places