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But why are you a little teapot?

by Aisha H. | Sep 24, 2018

If you’re like me, you sometimes start singing random songs from the tiniest prompt. A couple of weeks ago, I was doing something that caused my cat to look at me in disbelief, and I said, “I know it’s crazy, but it’s true.” And then for a good two hours after that, I kept singing, “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)”.

Last week, while cleaning my cat’s litter box, I started singing, “I’m a Little Teapot”. The line “Just tip me over and pour me out!” popped into my head while scooping. After singing it for way too long, I started to think quite a bit about the song. Why is “I’m a Little Teapot” a children’s song? Was there a need to inform children en masse of how teapots work? Were millions of children just standing around in kitchens not knowing what to do while teapots whistled? What was going on with this song?

Luckily, I’m a librarian and well-versed in looking up information. Though to me (and as it turns out, others), something about the song makes it seem like it was written a couple of hundred years ago, it was written in 1939 by George Harry Sanders and Clarence Kelley. Kelley ran a dance school in New York City that specialized in teaching a dance step that younger children were having trouble learning. Sanders was his piano accompanist. In need of something to teach the children for a dance recital, Kelley and Sanders wrote “I’m a Little Teapot” so the children could sing the song and do a simple dance. The dance was a hit with the parents, and Kelley and Sanders published the song.

It was found by a bandleader who recorded it, a tea company put a free tea coupon in the record envelope, and Kelley and Sanders waited for the song to become a hit. It did not. While the song wasn’t played on the radio, it did become a children’s classic, recorded many times and used by summer camps and nursery schools. Anthologists of children’s songbooks were surprised the authors were still alive, thinking as I had that the song was very old, and had to request permission to reprint it. And that is the basic history of “I’m a Little Teapot”.

If song history is of interest to you, here are some books that might satisfy your curiosity.


33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day by Dorian Lynskey

Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B, and Pop
by Marc Myers

The Golden Age of Novelty Songs by Steve Otfinoski

On My Journey Now: Looking at African-American History Through the Spirituals
by Nikki Giovanni

Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, and Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs by Ronald D. Lankford, Jr.

This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems by John Shaw

Aisha’s favorite authors are Lisa Lutz and Lorrie Moore. After years of resisting the librarian who owns a cat stereotype, she found Otis, the best giant little kitty ever created, and is now never without a cat hair somewhere on her clothing.

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