Most of us grew up believing that Humpty Dumpty was a big clumsy egg that fell off of a wall and couldn’t be put together again. This notion was drilled into our consciousness by illustrators who came up with their own interpretation of what Humpty Dumpty looked like. But when you go over the actual words of the 18th century rhyme, nowhere does it state that Humpty Dumpty was an egg.
That depiction was introduced in 1872 by John Tenniel, who drew Humpty Dumpty as an egg in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass.” The egg characterization was picked up in the 1902 “Mother Goose” storybook illustrated by William Wallace Denslow and in the 1916 version of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by artist Milo Winter. Maxfield Parrish even painted a Humpty egg on a 1921 cover of Life Magazine. Pop culture came to embrace the persona of Humpty Dumpty as an egg — but it wasn’t.
The tragic fall of Humpty Dumpty was actually first told in rhyme nearly a century earlier. The most credible account is that the nursery rhyme described the Colchester Siege of 1648 during the English Civil War. A city of castles and churches, Colchester was protected by a wall that surrounded the town. The Royalists (the King’s men) strategically placed a cannon on the wall to defend the town, but the Parliamentary army ferociously attacked the wall, causing the cannon – which Royalists nicknamed “Humpty Dumpty” — to fall to the ground. Unfortunately, “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
Today we mostly think of Humpty Dumpty as a roly-poly egg that recklessly perched itself on a wall and cracked into pieces. But even that story is ripe for humorous embellishment as seen in Wieden and Kennedy’s recent humorous TV commercial for Intuit Turbo Tax.