“It’s a Small World”—More than Just a (Temporarily Closed) Disney Ride

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While practicing physical distancing and social friendliness in our front yard, I found out that one of our neighbors has her own travel blog. Small world, huh?

Kate’s blog is All Kids Can Travel, and in it she shares how to make the most of trips with little ones (she and her husband have four) and how to learn about the world from the comfort of your home. A few years ago, when they had three children in diapers, they decided to forego the plane rides and created their own “home travel adventures.”

After selecting a country, the trip began. “The kids had a blast packing their roller carry-ons with their favorite things,” Kate writes. “While that country’s music played in the background, we would pretend to be border agents,” speaking with foreign accents and inspecting pretend passports. Later, as their children grew older, their in-home treks developed into real-life excursions, in-state, out-of-state, and abroad.

It will be a while before families will be able to get out and about, so until then, you might want to download some activity packets and pages from All Kids Can Travel. Or if you’d like to dream about your next outing, how about taking a look at Kate’s “Do’s and Don’ts of Walt Disney World“?

Just imagine your crew in a newly reopened Disney park climbing into an It’s-a-Small-World boat with the It’s-a-Small-World tune working its way into your subconscious . . . on repeat.

It’s a small world, after all
It’s a small world, after all
It’s a small world, after all
It’s a small world, after all
It’s a small world, after all

Oops, got carried away there.

It’s a small, small world

So where did this catchy song, and the catchy phrase behind it, come from?

First, let’s look at the song.

When Walt Disney was tasked with creating an attraction for the Pepsi/UNICEF pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he in turn tasked brothers Robert and Richard Sherman to create a theme song. Disney wanted a simple song that could be translated into multiple languages and sung in overlapping rounds. What he got was “It’s a Small World.” The boat ride, with its music, debuted at Disneyland two years later.

But Disney’s musical rendition wasn’t the first “It’s a Small World” . . . after all. No, that would be 1920’s “It’s a Small World after All,” with words by Andrew Sterling and music by Harry Von Tilzer. Sterling had earlier written the lyrics for “Meet Me in St. Louis” (for the 1904 World’s Fair), and Von Tilzer was the composer of 1911’s “I Want a Girl (Just like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad).”

Did you give it a listen? It’s not quite as catchy, but somewhat memorable in it’s own way.

To find the ancestry of the phrase It’s a small world, we’ll have to go back even further.

In 1882, Walter Bicknell put the words in the mouth of Iphigenia, servant of the eccentric Edgar Chatterton, in “The Player’s Child.” Chatterton finds Iphigenia looking at one of his books by Shakespeare:

“Have I not told you never to touch those sacred tomes, girl?” said her master, picking up the  book himself and touching with some care of manner.

“Well, I’m sure! I never went for to touch it! But there’s more dust in them nasty tombs—”

“Hence, Maiden, hence! I blush for the man or woman who applies the epithet ‘nasty’ to anything pertaining to the Bard of Stratford, Nature’s child.”

Iphigenia paused in silent reflection for a moment, and then said with a triumphant air:

“Out Stratford way, sir? Lor, then my mother must have known Mrs. Nature and them little Natures. She took in washing at Bow, and had a long circulation of shirts and handkerchiefs out by Stratford. It’s a small world, sir”

Iphigenia uses the phrase as we often do today, as in “Who would have thought that we’d know the same people?”

In 1875, Samuel James’ usage, though, has him talking about the physical size of the planet:

God cares about earth, and does not bound His love by the boundary line of heaven. Some people say, He is too great and glorious to care for such a little world as this of ours. It is, indeed, a small world compared with some of those twinkling star which we see in the midnight sky. But it is, for all that, an important world.

And in 1873, British author and army general George Chesney wrote A True Reformer, from the viewpoint of the character Mr. West. West and his wife, Eva, are traveling to Leatherwood to visit her aunts, and a Mr. Patterson sees them off:

This is a small world we live in,” said the old gentleman, as he bid us good-bye. “Only think that Mrs West should have been brought up at Leatherby, a place I know so well. The fact is that one of the members, Mr Sheepshanks, is a very old friend. A most truly excellent man he is, indeed, and owns half the town. I wish you could know him. I would send an introduction and ask him to call and see you, but that I know it would be of no use. He never visits anywhere.”

That brings us back to today’s meaning, if not the exact wording, and it’s the oldest such phrase that I, and others around the internet, have found.

For Iphigenia and Mr. Patterson, it’s enough to refer to the residents of nearby towns to show how small the world is. But today, our internet-linked world is even smaller, as we can find connections to people all over the globe, with, in theory, no more than six degrees of separation between any two of us.

We may be isolating ourselves at home right now, but some of us are out walking more and having more conversations with our neighbors. And social distancing is increasing our penchant for social networking online, which, in turn, is diminishing the gaps in our world, which truly is becoming

Smaller
Smaller
Smaller, after all

Walter Bicknell, “The Player’s Child,” The Theatre: A Monthly Review of the Drama, Music, and the Fine Arts, January to June, Clement Scott, ed., Charles Dickens and Evans, 1882; Samuel James, “Church Proverbs,”  The Headington Magazine, vol. 7, Oxford, 1875; George Chesney, A True Reformer, vol. 1, William Blackwood and Sons, 1873

[photo: “It’s a small world,” by tsukikageyuu, used under a Creative Commons license]

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