Meanwhile, there’s no evidence the rhyme existed in English until the late 19th Century. Newell, writing in 1883, asserted that the rhyme was known in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1790, but he gave no evidence, and none has come to light. After this unsubstantiated claim, the rhyme doesn’t turn up in English until 1881. What evidence is there it survived undocumented since 1665?
The claim that the rhyme is related to pestilence is even younger; the folklorists who diligently recorded the rhyme itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries never mention the plague interpretation, although they surely would have had they known it. The first evidence I’ve seen that people were connecting the rhyme with death and disaster is from 1949, when the newspaper The Observer ran a parody of the rhyme beginning “ring-a-ring-o’-geranium, a pocketful of uranium” and referring to the bombing of Hiroshima. In 1951, we find the first direct reference to the plague interpretation: Iona and Peter Opie state that some people believe the rhyme refers to the plague, but are not themselves convinced.
The more likely explanation is to be found in the religious ban on dancing among many Protestants in the nineteenth century, in Britain as well as here in North America. Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United States the “play-party.” Play-parties consisted of ring games which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment. They were hugely popular, and younger children got into the act, too. Some modern nursery games, particularly those which involve rings of children, derive from these play-party games. “Little Sally Saucer” (or “Sally Waters”) is one of them, and “Ring Around the Rosie” seems to be another. The rings referred to in the rhymes are literally the rings formed by the playing children. “Ashes, ashes” probably comes from something like “Husha, husha” (another common variant) which refers to stopping the ring and falling silent. And the falling down refers to the jumble of bodies in that ring when they let go of each other and throw themselves into the circle.
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