Goody Two Shoes: Its History in the 1700 and 1800s

The History of Goody Two Shoes (with or without a hyphen) was a children’s story written anonymously in 1765, published by John Newbery, and a variation of the story of Cinderella. Goody Two Shoes was the nickname of a poor orphan named Margery Meanwell who goes through life with one shoe until a rich gentleman gives her a new pair of shoes. She was so happy with her gift she told everyone she met that she had “two shoes,” resulting in her being called Goody Two Shoes. Later, she became a teacher, taught children to read, and performed good deeds, ultimately resulting in her marrying a rich widower.

John Newbery. Author’s collection.

Although The History of Little Goody Two Shoes is credited with popularizing the term “goody two shoes,” the actual origin of the phrase is unknown. What is known is the that “goody” was a shortened version of the form of address for Goodwife, the sixteenth century equivalent of the title Mrs. Furthermore, the phrase first appeared in published text in Charles Cotton’s 1670 Voyage to Ireland in Burlesque and indicated a bad-tempered housewife:

“Mistress mayoress complained that the pottage was cold;
And all ‘long of your fiddle-faddle,’ quoth she.
‘Why, what then, Goody two-shoes, what if it be?
Hold you, if you can, your tittle-tattle,’ quoth he.”[1]

One of the first mentions of The History of Goody Two Shoes appeared before its publication in The London Chronicle on 19 December 1765. The advertisement for it read:

“We are … desired to give notice that there is in the Press, and speedily will be published either by subscription or otherwise, as the Public shall please to determine, The History of Little Goody Two Shoes, otherwise called Margery Two Shoes. Printed and sold at The Bible and Sun in St Paul’s Churchyard, where may be had all Mr Newbery’s little books for the children and youth of these kingdoms and the colonies.”[2]  

The size of the original book was 4 inches by 2-3/4 inches and bound in Dutch flowered and gilt pattern paper. The illustrations that accompanied it were produced under the pseudonym “Michael Angelo” but were most likely created by artist Richard Johnson. It was also one of the first stories in English that was targeted specifically to children.

After its publication, it had a wide circulation and versions of it were quickly reproduced. So many copies were published they were said to be “legion,” and it was so popular it could hardly stay in print. In addition, “mutilated versions” were also printed by numerous London publishing houses.

The book was highly influential in the eighteenth century and it seemed as if every child had a copy. Jane Austen did. Her copy, bound with gilt and flowered Dutch paper boards, was passed down when she died. It also had the frontspiece colored and was inscribed with her name, “Jane Austen.”

Little Goody Two Shoes

Facsimile of the 1766 image used in Goody Two Shoes. Public domain.

Jane Austen was not only child reading Goody Two Shoes. The Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal links it in 1858 to Robert Southey, an English poet of the Romantic school born a year before Austen. The newspaper notes:

“As soon as the child [Robert Southey] could read, his aunt’s friends furnished him with literature. The son of Francis Newbery, of St. Paul’s churchyard, and the well-known publisher of ‘Goody Two Shoes,’ ‘Giles Gingerbread,’ and other such delectable histories in sixpenny books for children, splendidly bound in the flowered and gilt Dutch paper of former days, sent the child twenty such volumes. ‘This,’ says Southey, in his autobiography ‘was a rich present, and may have been more instrumental than I am aware in giving me that love of books, and that decided determination to literature, as the one thing desirable, which manifested itself from childhood, and which no circumstances in after life every slackened or abated.’”[3]

The book’s popularity also reached across the Atlantic Ocean to America, where within a few years it was printed and available there. For instance, in a section of The Pennsylvania Packet in 1776 there was an advertisement titled, “Just Published, and now selling by ROBERT BELL.” It further stated:

“At said BELL’s may be had the following small book for young sentimentalists! — The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, otherwise called Mrs. Margaret Two-Shoes. With the means by which she acquired her learning and wisdom, and in consequence thereof her estate. Set forth at large for the benefit of those

Who, from a state of rags and care,
And having shoes but half a pair,
Their fortune and their fame would fix,
And gallop in a coach and six.”[4]

Good Two Shoes woodcut

Woodcut from 1805 version of Goody Two Shoes. Public domain.

Probably because of its astounding success, everyone wanted to know who the author was, which then resulted in years of controversy and debate. Some people suggested Newbery was the author. Yet, if he wrote it, he was the antithesis of a Goody Two-Shoes because he was a profit-seeking entrepreneur whose publishing interests included a merchandising scheme that appealed to children and encouraged parents to reward their good behavior by spending their hard-earned money on books that he printed and sold.

He also performed “puffing,” a practice where he placed references to other books or to other products within a book to encourage purchases of those items too. For instance, in Goody Two Shoes he talks of Dr. Robert James’s Fever Powder, stating that her father died because he was “seized with a violent Fever in a place where Dr. James’s Powder was not to be had.”[5] Of course, Newbery sold the powder at his store, and the storybook reference to the powder was also the reason he became a wealthy man by the time he died in 1767.

Some of the critics who didn’t believe Newbery wrote the story claimed that it was written by his friend, Giles Jones. He was grandfather to Winter Jones and she was the Principal Librarian of the British Museum. Apparently, at one point the museum credited Giles as the author and claimed that because Goody Two Shoes becomes Lady Jones, Giles wrote it. In addition, Meanwell was a signature used in occasional letters in the Public Ledger of 1760, and either Giles Jones or Newbery wrote these letters. Moreover, Meanwell was also the name of a character in the Lilliputian Magazine, another of Newbery’s children’s books.

Goody Two Shoes

Image facsimile of 1839 version of Goody Two Shoes. Public domain.

Despite the idea that Newbery or Giles wrote it, many people discarded that thought and instead attributed authorship to the Irish author Oliver Goldsmith. Part of the reason that people suggested Goldsmith was because Newbery often paid authors for anonymous work and Goldsmith frequently wrote for pay and was doing so “industriously” for Newbery in 1763-1764. Washington Irving, American short story writer, essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat of the early nineteenth century, believed Goldsmith was the author. In fact, in his nineteenth century biography, The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, Irving noted:

“Several quaint little tales introduced in Goldsmith’s Essays show that he had a turn for this species of mock history; and the advertisement and title-page bear the stamp of his sly and playful humor.”[6]

Even though the suggestion of Goldsmith seemed highly plausible, controversy over the book’s authorship continued. The Pall Mall Gazette stated in 1882:

“For grown-up readers the interest of ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ is centered in the moot question of authorship and the present editor has marshalled all the arguments in favour of Goldsmith … The external evidence is wholly presumptive and circumstantial. Goldsmith was doing hack work for the Newberys in 1765; there is a vague literary tradition that Goldsmith wrote it; several distinguished critics, notably Washington Irving and the author of ‘Caleb Williams,’ himself a child’s publisher, have attributed the book with more or less certainty to Goldsmith. To these arguments Mr. Welsh adds two drawn from the book itself. He finds a strong family likeness between ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ and other volumes of the Lilliputian Magazine, all of which were published about the same time, and one of which is attributed in the British Museum Catalogue to Oliver Goldsmith. Secondly, there is a striking parallel between the political preface to ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ and the famous passage on latifundia in the ‘Deserted Village.’ It does not seem to us that Mr. Welsh has made out a strong case. The external evidence is at least as strong in favour of Mr. Giles Jones. The Museum Catalogue attributes it to him, and the family, which holds strongly to the ancestral claim, possesses an almost, if not quite unique copy of the first edition of 1765. The present editor cannot have seen this, or he would certainly have noticed a curious accretion in the second edition. In the original the Lady Margery dies in the odour of sanctity, and there is an end of her; but in the second a monument is erected to her memory in the church yard, ‘over which the poor as they pass weep continually, so that the stone is ever bathed in tears.’ This monument serves to introduce an impromptu spoken by ingenious young gentleman, a doggerel conceit unworthy even of an eighteenth-century tombstone.

We have left ourselves no space to consider the internal evidence, and with all respect for the opinions of Godwin, Irving, Mr. Welsh, and Miss Yonge, we must simply declare that we have failed to discover the faintest trace of Goldsmith’s curious felicity and sly playful humour. Goldsmith at his worst is better than Goody at her best. Goldsmith sometimes wrote loosely, but he never wrote, or could have written ‘those sort of children.’

We will hazard a new theory, for which there is a at least as much to be said as the Goldsmith theory. Turning over the Lilliputian Magazine we came upon a moral tale signed ‘Polly Newbery,’ the last verses of which run thus:

‘So children who are good and wise
Hobgoblin stories will despise,
And all such idle tales.
Virtue can fortitude instil,
And ward off all impending ill
Which over vice prevails.’

Here we have external probably, similarity of idea, and the very style of ‘Goody Two-Shoes.’ Must not Goldsmith yield his claim to Polly Newbery?”[7]

Nonetheless, whoever wrote the book may not be as important as how popular it was or how it was enjoyed by masses of children. The story was popular enough that it wasn’t long before it was turned into all sorts of theatre productions. One play mentioned was done so by Mary Lamb, an English writer and sister to Charles Lamb, the essayist, poet, and antiquarian. She wrote to a friend on 3 July 1803 stating that she and brother attended a production of Goody Two Shoes at Sadler’s Wells, where they also saw Jack the Giant Killer and Mary of Buttermere. Supposedly, according to Mary, Charles “laughed the whole time.”[8]

Charles Lamb. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the Victorian Era, morality was fashionable, and virtue was a highly popular theme. The story of Goody Two Shoes had by now popularized the phrase “goody two-shoes” to the point that it was by the late 1870s a reference to someone who was excessively virtuous or an exceptional do-gooder. Moreover, the story served as proof that Goody Two Shoes virtuosity was rewarded by wealth, a nice bonus. In addition, because of the story’s moralistic qualities numerous theatre productions were staged during the Victorian Era. One production that happened in 1888 resulted in a Victorian era newspaper encouraging attendance:

“All mothers, especially such as have naughty children, should immediately indulge their families by a visit to ‘Little Goody Two-Shoes’ at the Court Theatre. If they are not so very, very naughty, they will certainly come away in a better frame of mind … ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ herself is a most exemplary little girl, who chooses … the good, instead of the bad, fairies as her guide. … The realistic effect of this improving tale for the young is heightened by the fact that it is played by children throughout.”[9]

Goody Two Shoes

Goody Two-Shoes cover of 1888. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A few years later there was a “Goody Two-Shoes” pantomime version at the Surrey produced for Christmas. This 1899 version was claimed to be one the Surrey’s biggest Christmas successes. It starred a Miss Amy Dyson as Goody Two Shoes, and of this production it was stated:

“Messers Conquest and Spry have penned an ingeniously adequate ‘book,’ in which the most soul-harrowing puns and topical allusions fly thick and fast; and, if there is a fault to be found, it lies in the fact that there is too much of a good thing. … Songs, dances, magnificent scenery, hard-working artistes, and plenty of good, healthy, old-fashioned fun sent the sardine-packed like Surryeites into the seventh heaven of delight on Boxing Day afternoon. They shouted, they whistled.”[10]

Eventually, however, this wonderful rags-to-riches story began to wane, and The History Goody Two Shoes tumbled from its lofty tower of popularity. Books and plays were soon phased out, so that only the phrase, first found in print some 350 years ago was remembered. Thus, today, when it is used, most people don’t know of its rich history or that its popularity comes from a children’s book of questionable authorship published some 250 years ago.


  • [1] American Notes and Queries v. 5 (Philadelphia: W.S. and H.C. Walsh, 1890), p. 3.
  • [2] C. Welsh, Goody Two-Shoes: A Facsimile Reproduction of the Edition of 1776 (London: Griffith & Farran, 1881), p. iii–vi.
  • [3] Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, “Schooldays of Eminent Men,” July 3, 1858, p. 4.
  • [4] The Pennsylvania Packet, “Just published and now selling,” June 17, 1776, p. 6.
  • [5] C. Welsh, p. 13.
  • [6] W. Irving, Irving’s Works: Oliver Goldsmith (New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1864), p. 201.
  • [7] Pall Mall Gazette, “A Pair of Eighteenth Century Nursery Books,” January 6, 1882, p. 2.
  • [8] W. McKenna, Charles Lamb and the Theatre (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1978), p. 9.
  • [9] Pall Mall Gazette, “The Theatre,” December 27, 1888, p. 5.
  • [10] The Era, “Christmas Productions,” December 30, 1899, p. 10.


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