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Over the River and Through the Wood:
Defining Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America
Rachel A. Snell, Ph.D. Candidate
Many holiday songs draw on our nostalgia for a time past. The music of the season draws on our collective memory of a simpler time, whether that be childhood or the idealized historical past. Although originally written as a poem describing childhood anticipation for the Thanksgiving celebration at grandfather’s house, over time Over the River and Through the Wood has transformed into a song firmly associated with Christmas, sleigh rides, and grandmother’s cooking. The lyrics of the song conjure images of idealized domestic scenes, such as the farmyard depicted in the Currier and Ives print of John Schutler’s Home to Thanksgiving. The final two verses depict a similar scene to Schutler’s painting, revealing a child’s eagerness for family gatherings, grandmother’s love, and, of course, pumpkin pie.
Over the river, and through the wood-
when Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, “O, dear, the children are here,
bring pie for everyone.”
Over the river, and through the wood-
now Grandmothers cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!
While the twelve verses in the original poem, connect with our collective ideal of the American past, the author of Over the River and Through the Wood was acutely aware of the injustices and inequalities inherent in American society. Lydia Maria Child is best remembered as “a tireless crusader for truth and justice and a champion of excluded groups in American society—especially Indians, slaves, and women” and this focused determined the course of her literary career. Originally titled The New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day and published in a collection of poetry for children, the poem is representative of Child’s writing for children. This writing focused on a range of subjects, from history and literature, to slavery, Native Americans, and other reform causes, to botany and other sciences. Most importantly, the poems and short stories focused on American issues and the inculcation of American values. The success of Over the River and Through the Wood at this task of inculcating American values is readily apparent in its continued relevance to the celebration of winter holidays.
Lydia Maria Child was one of the most widely recognized and successful woman authors of her day. Child was a pioneer of several literary genres, including the historical novel, the history of slavery, and the history of women. Child also helped develop children’s literature, editing the first children’s magazine in the nation and writing several books of poetry aimed specifically at children. She possessed a remarkable ability to predict what the American reading public would want to read and when. Subsequently, she was able to support herself and her family with her writing.
Child was intimately connected to the development of a definition of domesticity; Over the River and Through the Wood is firmly centered on an ideal domestic space and the joys to be found there. Her writing for women and children, like most of the publications aimed at this audience, was designed to entertain and instruct women and girls in the art of keeping a home and proper womanly behavior. Her writing for children, in particular, served to teach children what home should be. Much of Child’s writing builds upon the theme of the importance of family in the idealized domestic space, most importantly women and children. In Letters from New York, a compilation of essays from her popular column in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Child addresses numerous reform causes, including abolition, women’s rights, poor relief, and prison reform.
Child’s discussion of poverty in New York City closely parallels the themes in Over the River and Through the Wood. If the poem describes the ideal domestic space with family love, comfortable surrounding, and plenty to eat; her writings on poverty deplore the absence of those conditions for the poor. Mothers and children are presented as central to the creation of the ideal domestic space, “I missed the women and children; for without something to represent the genial influence of domestic life, the circle of joy and hope is ever incomplete.” Child, and other reform advocates of her day, recognized the need for real, substantial change to remake American society to be more just and equitable for all,
“If society does make its own criminals, how shall she cease to do it? It can be done only by a change in the structure of society, that will diminish the temptation to vice, and increase the encouragements to virtue. If we can abolish poverty, we shall have taken the greatest step towards the abolition of crime; and this will be the final triumph of the gospel of Christ.”
Despite her ability to identify popular currents in American society toward reform, perhaps most notably with abolition and women’s rights, other causes Child championed remained firmly on the fringes of American society. Her writing for children, which idealized New England life may appear at odds with her ideas about poor relief, but her children’s literature, and her writing for reform causes are clearly connected. By defining and celebrating the ideal domestic situation, Child is able to highlight the inequities in American society and inspire sympathy for those unable to travel over the river and through the wood for pumpkin pie at grandfather’s house.
Rachel A. Snell, “Over the River and Through the Wood: Defining Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), December 19, 2012, https://khronikosum.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/409/.
 Biography: Lydia Maria Child, 1802-1880, Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/lydia-maria-child (Accessed Dec. 19, 2012).
 Lydia Maria Child, Letters from New York (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1998), 14.
 Child, Letters from New York, 127
“Home to Thanksgiving” http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/timage_f?object=66577&image=16692&c=
“Middle Age: The Season of Strength” http://www.currierandives.com/