Here is a little poem for children from the 19th century, often used to illustrate the time-honored adage: “Actions speak louder than words.”
Which Loved Best
“I love you, mother,” said little John,
Then, forgetting his work, his cap went on;
And he was off to the garden swing,
And she had the wood and water to bring.
“I love you, mother,” said rosy Nell,
“I love you more than tongue can tell.”
Then she teased and pouted half the day,
Till her mother was glad when she went to play.
“I love you, mother,” said little Fan,
“Today I’ll help you all I can.
How glad I am school doesn’t keep!”
Then she rocked the baby till it went to sleep.
And stepping softly she brought the broom,
And swept the floor and tidied the room.
Busy and happy all day was she.
Helpful and happy as child could be.
“I love you, mother,” again they said—
Three little children going to bed.
How do you think that mother guessed
Which of them really loved her best?
Its author, Mary A. Cragin, wrote under the pen name Joy Allison. Most of Mrs. Cragin’s stories and poems appeared in magazines. She also published two stories in book form: “Billow Prairie” and “Conrad and the House Wolf.” In addition to magazines, “Which Loved Best” turned up in Sunday school lessons and grade school readers. You can find it in second grade readers as early as 1879 on Google Books.
There are many different versions of “Which Loved Best.” Most of the time it is attributed to Joy Allison. Sometimes it is not attributed to anyone. Sometimes little Fan becomes little Nan. Sometimes it’s “little Nell” and “rosy Fan.” I’ve even seen one where “rosy Nell” is “Rosa Nell.”
The most interesting one to me is in Blackie’s Comprehensive School Series (1879) where the second from last line is rendered “How d’ye think that mother guessed” with the meaning of “d’ye” explained in the vocabulary notes. Blackie’s was a publishing concern that began in Scotland in the early 19th century. In the 1870s, they began to publish their readers when education became compulsory, and later expanded to England. I’ve never seen an American version with that “d’ye” in there and just wonder what possessed someone to change it to that.
I learned the poem from my mother, who was born in 1928, although Mom would sort of mangle the verses and even make up her own. She recited it in the early 1960s whenever she didn’t think our actions were reflecting filial obedience. Mom was a Roman Catholic who attended catechism as a youngster, and I doubt that she learned it there. More likely, she learned it from her own mother or father, perhaps when she was around 10 years old. I never heard her say it before the age of 10 myself, and I was reading and memorizing poetry from age 5.