This proverb goes back at least to 1869…


Northall prints this proverb the following way in his book called English Folk-rhymes (1892):

Three straws on a staff
Would/Will make a baby cry and/or laugh.

Northall wrote, "...three pieces of straw tied to the top of a stick are shown to a child to test his disposition." In other words, by showing the child the straws and the stick his or her personality could be judged. If the reaction is to giggle or smile, the personality is cheerful. If it is to recoil or frown, the personality is meek or dour.

It's also possible that the lines were originally part of a choosing rhyme. Kids could pick straws to see whose turn it is in a game. In that case, you choose from straws of different sizes (hiding the bottom of the straw so you can't see their sizes). Whoever gets the smallest straw is chosen.

If anyone knows more about the meaning of this proverb please email me. Thanks! Mama Lisa


This rhyme can be found in The Real Mother Goose (1916), illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright. This proverb can also be found in Hazlitt's Proverbs (1882).