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My mother, born in 1911, did not have a carefree childhood. Her father died in a coal mining accident when she was four years old, leaving her mother to provide for five daughters. The mining company provided the family with a small house, and the local authorities gave them a plot of ground to garden. Whenever a train with a coal car came chugging down the track, my grandma would send my mother and her sisters scurrying to pick up any coal that had fallen off. Then they would carry it to the house in their aprons, gratified that they had just procured a few hours of free heat.
My mother spent much of her childhood helping the family to persevere, surely doing without many of the basics to which children of the era were accustomed. Yet, sixty years later, when my sister Sandy asked my mother for her happiest memory, she smiled and conceded that she loved being a child and jumping rope with her friends.
Here is my mother with her fifth grade class circa 1921. She is in the third row, second from right. Someone wrote “Anna” across her chest. After the photo session, maybe she went to recess and jumped rope with the girls!
One-hundred-year-old friend Helen, whom I recently interviewed about her childhood, also came from a poor family, living with her parents and three brothers in what she called a “shack”— a three-room house with no heat, no indoor plumbing, not even an indoor toilet. Yet she expressed similar sentiments as my mother: “Oh, yeah,” she reminisced. “We used to jump rope. We’d get a couple girls in there to jump together.” She even recalled a jump rope chant from 100 years ago, which was one of our neighborhood favorites in the 1960’s as well—evidence that jump rope rhymes were passed from generation to generation.
As children of the 1950’s and 1960’s, we Boomer girls lived in a different realm than my mother and Helen did a century ago. We had the “newest” diversions of talking dolls, Etch-a-Sketch, Slinky, and the Hula Hoop; the conveniences of the typewriter, portable phonograph, television, and an automobile in nearly every driveway. Yet, whether girls in 1920 or girls in 1960, we deemed jumping rope as one of our favorite activities—fun yet challenging, fast-paced, and a special way to bond with our friends.
This is why I was not surprised when I recently asked baby boomers what outdoor activity they played most often when they were children, and the number four response, behind bike riding, sports, and playing jacks, was jumping rope. Admittedly a “girlie” sport, it was high on my list. Some of the jump rope rhymes of my youth were repeated so often and are so embedded in my brain that I can still remember the words to this day, more than fifty years later.
Take, for example, the rhyme below, which I call the “Cuckoo Rhyme.” It is the one that we girls chanted most often at recess; it is also one that Helen and her friends chanted ninety years ago. To get you in the mood, here is my sister Shirley, around nine years old, in the back yard with her jump rope. (I am the kid on the left doing I know not what.)
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
All good children go to heaven.
Some fly east, some fly west,
And some fly in the cuckoo’s nest.
Sometimes I jumped alone with a small rope, or I jumped in the street with at least two others using a longer rope. But most often and incurring the most fun was jumping rope during recess with a group of girls on a pleasant May afternoon. Two girls would hold a long jump rope, one at each end. The rest of the girls stood in line awaiting their turn. You were still a novice until you could jump “in” with the rope turning. You were accomplished if you could jump in with the rope twirling backwards. You were a true master if you could jump with two ropes going at the same time, one forward and one backward, otherwise known as Double Dutch. And we did it in dresses and buckle shoes!
Sometimes a group of boys, bored and desperate for entertainment, I suppose, would amble over to give jumping rope a try. They didn’t often mosey over by themselves for fear of teasing, but they felt safe if others dared, especially if the “others” were popular boys who were not concerned that doing a questionably “girlie” activity would taint their macho images. Most were all proud of themselves if they could jump in without tangling themselves in the rope, but some showed promise.
We often played “High Water, Low Water” as well. A vastly different jump rope game, it uses a long jump rope held by a child at each end. To play, begin with the rope lying on the ground. Children form a line and take turns jumping over the rope. In this photo, the boys’ mom joins in.
With each successive round, the rope is raised a little higher off the ground. If you jump without touching the rope, you continue on; if you touch the rope, you are “out,” or you have to trade places with one of the children holding the rope. The winner is the last child remaining. Sometimes, we would then switch the game to Limbo, treating the taut jump rope as a Limbo Stick.
Occasionally, a girl would bring a Chinese jump rope made strictly of rubber bands. Not many girls owned them in my 50’s/60’s neighborhood because, at that time, they were all homemade, so you had to have a parent willing to buy enough rubber bands to make a circle six feet long. First, the game begins with the Chinese jump rope stretched around the ankles of two children standing several feet apart. The third player stands inside the rope and must accomplish a series of increasingly difficult jumps and moves to continue play. To refresh your memory with simple illustrated instructions, read here on wikiHow.
I was going to make a video demonstrating how to assemble an old-fashioned Chinese jump rope, but I can’t possibly compete with this Youtube video.
Oh, how we girls hated it when the teachers told us that recess was over!
One day recently it occurred to me that jumping rope is becoming a lost art. My daughter Leslie, a child in the 1980’s, jumped rope occasionally, but it was not on her top ten list of fun things to do during summer vacation. Now I don’t see girls jumping on quiet residential streets like I used to, and when I pass by an elementary school at recess, I don’t see many jump ropes twirling. Being a retired teacher, I no longer have instant access to hundreds of kids to test my theory.
So last week, I decided to go straight to the source and strode across the street to the back yard of my nine-year-old neighbor Mark, where he was frolicking in his pool with his cousin Kaylee, eight, and our neighbor Talia, who is seven. I asked them outright if kids ever jump rope anymore. Kaylee immediately spoke up. “I love to jump rope.”
“I can jump rope, too,” Mark announced with vigor. “I’ll go get my jump rope.” And with that, all three bounded out of the pool to show me their jumping skills. In bare feet or flip flops, they weren’t quite wearing proper jumping attire, but they were eager to give it a whirl anyway.
Mark informed me that he learned to jump rope through an event in gym class called “Jump Rope for Heart,” which I discovered is sponsored by the American Heart Association. Two of the goals are improving kids’ health and raising donations for kids with “special hearts.” I was pleased to hear it. Not only will kids discover that jumping rope is fun; they may also learn that not just boxers, but many other athletes jump rope for the benefits of a full-body workout. Jumping rope is not just a girlie sport anymore.
Kaylee is the seasoned jump roper of the group, but I give credit to Talia and Mark for their effort and enthusiasm, a sure formula for success. Kaylee taught us two jumping rhymes, neither of which I had heard before. Likewise, they had never heard of my “Cuckoo” chant. She also reminded me of a game similar to High Water/Low Water, which she called “Wiggle Rope.” The only difference is that in Wiggle Rope, the jump rope is wiggled to produce a snake-like effect. As a matter of fact, among my friends, I think we called the game “Snake in the Grass.”
Here are my three neighbors, a few days later, eager to be videotaped to assist me with my blog. From left to right, we have Talia, Kaylee, and Mark.
My three young friends assure me that kids still do jump rope at recess as well as in gym class. Therefore, I am here to report that jumping rope may be an endangered species, but it is by no means extinct. And, thanks to gym teachers and “Jump Rope For Heart,” even boys are taking up the challenge, as evidenced by this photo taken after a day of canyoneering:
Hey, even Geronimo has taken up the sport—Double Dutch, no less.
If you are still convinced that the art of jumping rope is dead and buried, view this video of the 2013 USA Jump Rope National Competition, which showcases boys as well as girls.
2013 USA Jump Rope National Competition
I’m sure there were hundreds of jump rope rhymes used throughout the United States and even internationally in the 50’s and 60’s. I am signing off from this post with a few chants that we often sang in my Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, neighborhood. I did not need to look up most lyrics online because, although they’ve been dormant in my brain for fifty years, all I needed was the sight of kids jumping rope in the street to bring those rhymes out of hibernation.
Here are a few that became committed to my long-term memory after continual use:
Bubblegum, bubblegum in a dish
How many pieces do you wish?
1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .
Doctor, doctor, call the doctor.
(Debbie’s) gonna have a newborn baby.
Wrap it up in tissue paper,
Send it down the elevator.
Boy, girl, twins, or triplets?
Boy, girl, twins, or triplets?
Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, tie your shoes..
Teddy bear, teddy bear, read the news.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, go upstairs.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, say your prayers.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn out the lights.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, say goodnight.
Down in the Valley where the green grass grows,
There sat (Judy) as sweet as a rose.
She sang, she sang, she sang so sweet,
Along came (Tommy) and kissed her on the cheek.
How many kisses did she get?
1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .
Mississippi, Mississippi, Mississippi, Miss.
When she misses, she misses like this.
(You can be sure of one thing: All we girls knew how to spell the 20th state admitted to the Union!)
Here is a rhyme that requires speed. When it gets to “red hot pepper,” swing the rope like crazy.
Set the table.
Don’t forget the RED HOT PEPPER!
And here’s an alphabet fill in the blank. You can go A thru Z.
A my name is Alice
And my husband’s name is Albert.
We come from Arizona
And we sell apples.
B my name is Betsy
And my husband’s name is Bill.
We come from Boston
And we sell balloons.
C my name is ______
To jog your memory with more jump rope rhymes, see the Mudcat Café.
Do you have any jump rope rhymes or stories to share?
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.