Three Little Kittens

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"Three Little Kittens"
Roud #16150
Three little kittens.png
Illustration from Ballantyne's 1858 version
Published 1843 (United States)
Form Nursery rhyme
Writer Eliza Lee Cabot Follen
Language English

"Three Little Kittens" is an English language nursery rhyme, probably with roots in the British folk tradition. The rhyme as published today however is a sophisticated piece usually attributed to American poet Eliza Lee Cabot Follen (1787-1860). With the passage of time, the poem has been absorbed into the Mother Goose collection. The rhyme tells of three kittens who first lose, then find and soil, their mittens. When all is finally set to rights, the kittens receive their mother's approval and some pie. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 16150.

The poem was first published in Britain in 1833 as an anonymous addition to a volume of Follen's verse and in the United States in 1843. Follen may have developed and refined an existing, rude version of the poem, and, in the process, made it her own. The poem is a sophisticated production that avoids the typical moralization of 19th century children's literature in favour of anthropomorphic fantasy, satirical nonsense, and word play. It is one of the first pieces of children's romantic literature produced for amusement and entertainment, and may be the source of the idiom "to smell a rat".


Illustration of the rhyme from 1874
The kittens playing in the garden, an illustration from 1874

Three little kittens they lost their mittens,
And they began to cry,
Oh, mother dear, we sadly fear
We have lost our mittens
What! lost your mittens, you naughty kittens!
Then you shall have no pie.
Mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow.
No, you shall have no pie.

The three little kittens they found their mittens,
And they began to cry,
Oh, mother dear, see here, see here,
We have found our mittens
Put on your mittens, you silly kittens,
And you shall have some pie.
Mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow.
Oh, let us have some pie.

The three little kittens put on their mittens,
And soon ate up the pie;
Oh, mother dear, we greatly fear
We have soiled our mittens
What! soiled your mittens, you naughty kittens!
Then they began to sigh,
Mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow.
Then they began to sigh.

The three little kittens they washed their mittens,
And hung them out to dry;
Oh! mother dear, do you not hear,
We have washed our mittens
What! washed your mittens, then you’re good kittens,
But I smell a rat close by.
Mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow.
We smell a rat close by.[1]

From Follen, New Nursery Songs for All Good Children (1843)


According to Janet Sinclair Gray, author of Race and Time, "Three Little Kittens" may have origins in the British folk tradition, but the poem as known today is a sophisticated production far removed from such origins. Gray supports her assertion by pointing out that the cats are not the barnyard felines of folk material but bourgeois domestic cats who eat pie and wear mittens. Gray observes that the mother cat's disciplinary measures and the kittens' need to report their movements to her are also indicators of a bourgeois status. "Three Little Kittens" is attributed to Bostonian Sunday school teacher and abolitionist, Eliza Lee Cabot Follen (1787-1860), a member of a prominent New England family and the author of the juvenile novel The Well-Spent Hour. Gray explains that "Kittens" is unlike any of Follen's typical poems, but also notes that Follen is just the sort of person who would write such a piece. It is unlikely Follen composed "Kittens" wholecloth, Gray believes, but rather far more likely that she developed and refined an existing but rude version of the piece. In doing so, she made the poem her own. Although Follen disclaimed authorship following the poem's first appearance in print, she continued to publish it under her name in succeeding years.[1][2]


Tune for Three Little Kittens

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The poem was first printed in 1833 in Britain in Follen's Little Songs for Little Boys and Girls. It was an addition to the volume and probably inserted by the publisher. In the introduction to a subsequent edition, Follen denied any hand in the poem's composition, but took it under her wing and claimed ownership as the poem passed through various reprints. The poem was first published in the United States in 1843 in Follen's New Nursery Songs for All Good Children. An 1856 American reprint was subtitled "A Cat's Tale, with Additions".[2][3] In 1858 R. M. Ballantyne elaborated Follen's poem and published his prose version in a volume of the Good Little Pig's Library. This version included a musical setting for Follen's poem.[4]


"Three Little Kittens" was hugely popular and quickly absorbed into the Mother Goose collection. Unlike her female literary contemporaries who typically stressed moral edification in their children's pieces, Follen subordinated such edification in "Three Little Kittens" and emphasized fantasy involving anthropomorphic characters, verbal play, and satirical nonsense. The poem is considered a cornerstone in the shift from moral literature for children to romantic literature intended to amuse and entertain.[2]


  1. ^ a b P. Hunt, ed., Children's Literature: An Anthology 1801-1902 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 74.
  2. ^ a b c J. S. Gray, Race and Time: American Women's Poetics from Antislavery to Racial Modernity (Iowa City IA: University of Iowa Press, 2004), p. 192ff.
  3. ^ I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 256-7.
  4. ^ Ballantyne, R. M. The History of the Three Little Kittens includes images of the first page, covers, and a music sheet.

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