Something Old, Something New
and the Lucky Silver Sixpence

Something old, something new,
Something borrowed, something blue,
And a sixpence for her shoe.

On the internet there are many copied-and-pasted explanations – often inaccurate and misquoted – about the “Something old, something new” rhyme and the tradition of the gift or wearing of a sixpence on the wedding day. Unfortunately, there are no simple or definitive origins or meanings.

What is certain, is that the gift of a sixpence to the bride-to-be or marriage partner-to-be is a token of love and support for the forthcoming union. To wear or carry the coin at the marriage is to uphold a tradition established well over a hundred years go, with its origins and symbolism dating from centuries earlier. And whether or not one believes in tradition or subscribes to the folklore of the sixpence, this little coin will at least serve as an unobtrusive memento of a special day.

The rhyme appears to be a mid-to-late Victorian formalisation and amalgamation of long-held British regional customs, folklore and superstitions. That is, previously unrecorded traditions and oral history finally made their way into print with the explosions of mass literacy, newspaper circulation and the publishing industry.

Nowadays, pretty much anything goes regarding what can be worn to satisfy the old, new, borrowed and blue requirements of the verse. A common interpretation of the rhyme is to a ascribe meanings to each element: continuity in “something old”; optimism for the future in “something new”; borrowed happiness in “something borrowed”; love and fidelity in “something blue” and good fortune and prosperity with the sixpence. However, this is a quite recent explanation, one that conflates earlier interpretations and invents new ones. It is worth mentioning that there is no proscribed, precise wording or form of the rhyme; however, “Something old, something new” is now more common than “Something old and something new.” The final line still varies between “a sixpence” or “a silver sixpence” and either “in her shoe”, “in your shoe” or “for your shoe.” The phrase “a silver sixpence” is a very recent one as before 1947 all sixpences were silver and one would not refer to them as such.

The earliest recorded version of the first two lines is in 1871 in the short story, “Marriage Superstitions, and the Miseries of a Bride Elect” in St James’ Magazine, when the female narrator states, “On the wedding day I must ‘wear something new, something borrowed, something blue.'” Note here, there is no mention of “something old;” this is similar to a Leicestershire version of  “something new, something blue, something borrowed.”1 The first apparently recorded version of the rhyme as we now know it (the so-called Lancashire version) was on 21 October 1876 in a Staffordshire newspaper, which reported a wedding where the bride “wore, according to ancient custom, something old and something new, something borrowed and blue.”2 Note the phrase “ancient custom.”

According to one Victorian folklorist

“The something blue” takes, I am given to understand, usually the form of a garter, an article of dress which plays an important part in some wedding rites, as, for instance, in the old custom of plucking off the garter of the bride. “The something old” and “something blue” are devices to baffle the Evil Eye. The usual effect on the bride of the Evil Eye is to render her barren, and this is obviated by wearing “something borrowed”, which should properly be the undergarment of some woman who has been blessed with children: the clothes communicate fertility to the bride.3

Note here, there is no mention of “something new.” Moreover, in terms of customs and folklore, the wearing of blue is at odds another rhyme: “If dressed in blue, she’s sure to rue.”4

It is agreed that the third line of the rhyme, “And a sixpence for her shoe” is a later Victorian addition. Before 1905 the custom and full rhyme had reached polite society in America, as evident in the novel Purple and Fine Linen by Emily Post (1872-1960).5 It is now the custom to wear the sixpence in the left shoe. This, undoubtedly, would be to mitigate bad luck and superstitions associated with the left foot. They can be traced as far back as the Roman emperor, Augustus (63BC – 14AD), when “it was esteemed unlucky to put on or take off the left shoe or sandal before the right.”6

Many websites have reproduced a claim that this sixpence tradition derives from is Elizabethan / Jacobean “Lord of the Manor” who would either (a) give his bride a wedding gift a piece of silver or (b) give a sixpence as a wedding present to brides who lived on his land. Alas, authors of these claims do not provide any historical sources. Certainly, silver has have been included in marriage dowries since biblical times – but only for the wealthiest. What is certain is that the sixpence has a long history: it was first minted in 1551 and continued to be so until 1967. Silver has a far longer tradition in folklore and a vast number of references to its mystic qualities: in Co. Donegal, Ireland, the “only thing that can injure [a witch] is a silver bullet made from a sixpence or a shilling.”7 Even wearing a silver ring whilst churning milk “will make the butter come quickly.”8

It remains unclear why the sixpence assumed the role of a lucky coin instead of other lower-value circulating silver, such as the threepence, groat (fourpence) or the shilling. Indeed, for centuries the penny itself had been minted in silver and was in circulation until the end of the eighteenth century. One of the earliest explicit literary references to a lucky sixpence occurs in a short story, Tawny Rachel; or, the Fortuneteller (1797) by Hannah More:

The poor girl said she would run up stairs to her little box where she kept her money tied up in a bit of an old glove, and would bring down a bright queen Ann’s six-pence very crooked. “I am sure,” added she, “it is a lucky one, for it cured me of a very bad ague last spring, by only laying it nine nights under my pillow without speaking a word.”9

From the middle of the nineteenth century, the lucky sixpence, both as a term and as the subject of a story, begins to be recorded frequently in popular fiction. Two such early examples – in children’s fiction – are Peter Little and the Lucky Sixpence (1851) and Phemie and the Fern Fairy (1866).10

It seems likely that the luck surrounding the sixpence – and its association with the shoe – derive from pre-sixteenth century folklore: fairies were said to reward a tidy maid or housewife by dropping a sixpence in her shoe. This is alluded to in the well-known ballad, “The Fairies’ Farewell” by Richard Corbet (1582-1635), Bishop of Oxford and (later) Bishop of Norwich:

Farewell rewards and fairies!
Good housewives now may say,
For now foul sluts in dairies
Do fare as well as they;
And though they sweep their hearths no less
Than maids were wont to doe,
Yet who of late for cleanliness,
Finds sixpence in her shoe?11

To place this sixpence in context: in 1616 it could have been half a day’s wages for a provincial male labourer and would, indeed, be good fortune to suddenly find this sum.12 A similar reference to the superstition is found in the poem, “To the Moon” by Robert Lloyd (1733-1764):

Hither the fairies blithe advance,
While lazy mortals snore asleep;
Whom of they visit in the night,
Not visible to human sight;
And as old prattling wives relate,
Though now the fashion’s out of date;
Drop sixpence in the housewife’s shoe…13

The lucky sixpence – and luck in finding the coin – is also evident in another British custom, that of including the coin(s) in the Christmas pudding: the person who is served a portion with the coin gets to keep it. In Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel, The Christmas Hirelings (1894), several sixpences are baked in the pudding.14 The number of coins would obviously vary according to the wealth of the household; it was also common to use silver threepences until their discontinuance in 1944.

And finally, a reference should be made to the song, “Something Old, Something New” by the Fantastics, a 1971 top-ten hit in the UK but only a minor one in the US.

1 Anon., “Marriage Superstitions, and the Miseries of a Bride Elect, Part II” in St James’ Magazine, Vol VII, 1871, London, Sampson Low,  p.572.
2 Staffordshire Advertiser, 21 October 1876, p.5. Referring to this, a subsequent letter  asks if this “ancient custom is prevalent in Wales or Shropshire?”  This further lends weight to the opinion that the rhyme and tradition had regional variations; moreover, this suggests that they were perhaps not as universally well-known as they later became. This subsequent letter has been incorrectly cited as the first instance. See also Bygones, Relating to Wales and the Boarder Counties, October 1876, ed. John Askew Roberts, Oswestry and Wrexham, Woodall, Minshall and Company, p.136.
3 W. Crooke, “The Wooing of Penelope”, in Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review, Vol IX, The Folk-Lore Society, London, David Nutt, 1898, p.128.
4 T. F. Thistleton-Dyer, Folk-lore of Women, London, Elliot Stock, 1905, p.45.
5 Emily Post, Purple and Fine Linen, New York, D. Appleton, 1905, p.108.
6 George Oliver, “Popular Superstitions of Lincolnshire”, in  The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol CII, ed. Sylvanus Urban, London, 1832, p.592.
7 Thomas Doherty, “Some Notes on the Physique, Customs and Superstitions of  the Peasantry of  Innishowen, Co. Donegal”, in Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review, Vol VIII, The Folk-Lore Society, London, David Nutt, 1897, p.18.
8 Cora Linn Daniels and C. F. Stevens (eds.), Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Science, Vol II, Chicago and Milwaukee, J. H. Yewdale and Sons, 1903, p.871.
9 Hannah More, Tawny Rachel; or, the Fortuneteller, with some account of dreams, omens and conjurers, London, 1797, p.9. Various reprints.
10 Henry Campkin, Peter Little and the Lucky Sixpence; The Frog’s Lecture; and other stories. A verse book for my children and their playmates, London, James Ridgway, 1851 and Thomas Hood and Thomas Archer, “Phemie and the Fern Fairy” in Great Fun Stories, London, Sampson Low, 1866.
11 Richard Corbet (1582-1635), “The Fairies’ Farewell”.
12 W. G. Hoskins, “Provincial Life” (1964) in The Cambridge Shakespeare Library Vol 1: Shakespeare’s Times, Texts, and Stages, ed.  Catherine M. S. Alexander, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p.170.
13 Robert Lloyd (1733-1764), “To the Moon”, in Works of the British Poets, with Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, Vol 10, ed. Robert Anderson, London and Edinburgh, John and Arthur Arch et al., 1795, pp.696-697. Fairies, “so Bishop Corbet tells us, went out with the Reformation, and now no tidy maid ever finds sixpence dropped in her shoe for luck.” (Worcestershire Chronicle, 7 December 1878, p.5.)
14 M. E. Braddon, The Christmas Hirelings, London, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent and Co., 1894, pp.138-141.

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