Joseph Jacobs
Photograph of Jacobs taken in 1900
Born(1854-08-29)29 August 1854
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Died30 January 1916(1916-01-30) (aged 61)
Yonkers, New York, U.S.
Alma materUniversity of Sydney
St John’s College, Cambridge
University of Berlin
SubjectIndo-European fairy tales; Jewish history

Joseph Jacobs (29 August 1854 – 30 January 1916) was an Australian folklorist, translator, literary critic, social scientist, historian and writer of English literature who became a notable collector and publisher of English folklore.

Jacobs was born in Sydney to a Jewish family. His work went on to popularize some of the world's best known versions of English fairy tales including "Jack and the Beanstalk", "Goldilocks and the three bears", "The Three Little Pigs", "Jack the Giant Killer" and "The History of Tom Thumb". He published his English fairy tale collections: English Fairy Tales in 1890 and More English Fairy Tales in 1893[a] but also went on after and in between both books to publish fairy tales collected from continental Europe as well as Jewish, Celtic and Indian fairytales which made him one of the most popular writers of fairytales for the English language. Jacobs was also an editor for journals and books on the subject of folklore which included editing the Fables of Bidpai and the Fables of Aesop, as well as articles on the migration of Jewish folklore. He also edited editions of The Thousand and One Nights. He went on to join The Folklore Society in England and became an editor of the society journal Folklore.[1] Joseph Jacobs also contributed to The Jewish Encyclopedia.

During his lifetime, Jacobs came to be regarded as one of the foremost experts on English folklore.


Early life

Jacobs was born in Sydney, Australia on 29 August 1854.[2] He was the sixth surviving son of John Jacobs, a publican who had emigrated from London around 1837, and his wife Sarah, née Myers.[3] Jacobs was educated at Sydney Grammar School and at the University of Sydney, where he won a scholarship for classics, mathematics and chemistry. He did not complete his studies in Sydney, but left for England at the age of 18.[4]

Jacobs attained his BA from St John's College, Cambridge
Jacobs attained his BA from St John's College, Cambridge

He moved to England to study at St. John's College at the University of Cambridge, where he gained a BA in 1876.[5] At university, he demonstrated a particular interest in mathematics, philosophy, literature, history, and anthropology.[5] While in Britain, Jacobs became aware of widespread anti-Semitism; to counter this, he wrote an essay, "Mordecai", which was published in the June 1877 edition of Macmillan's Magazine.[6] In 1877 he moved to Berlin to study Jewish literature and bibliography under Moritz Steinschneider and Jewish philosophy and ethnology under Moritz Lazarus.[7]

Jacobs returned to England, where he studied anthropology under Francis Galton.[7] At this point, he began to further develop his interest in folklore.[7] From 1878 to 1884 he served as secretary of the Society of Hebrew Literature.[7] He was concerned by the anti-Semitic pogroms in the Russian Empire and in January 1882 wrote letters on the subject to the London Times. This helped raise public attention to the issue, resulting in the formation of the Mansion House Fund and Committee, of which he was secretary from 1882 to 1900.[7] He was the honorary secretary of the literature and art committee of the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition—held in London's Royal Albert Hall in 1887—and with Lucien Wolf compiled the exhibit's catalogue.[7]

In 1888, Jacobs visited Spain to examine old Jewish manuscripts there; while in the country the Royal Academy of History at Madrid elected him a corresponding member.[8] In 1891, he returned to the theme of Russian anti-Semitism for a short book, "The Persecution of the Jews in Russia", which was published first in London and then republished in the United States by the Jewish Publication Society of America.[8] In 1896, Jacobs began publication of the annual Jewish Year Book, continuing the series until 1899, after which it was continued by others.[8]

In Britain, he was also President of the Jewish Historical Society.[9]

Later life

In 1896, Jacobs visited the United States to deliver his lectures on "The Philosophy of Jewish History" to Gratz College in Philadelphia and to groups of the Council of Jewish Women at New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.[10] In 1900, he was invited to serve as revising editor for the Jewish Encyclopedia, which included entries from 600 contributors.[11] He moved to the United States to take on this task.[11] There he involved himself in the American Jewish Historical Society.[11] He became a working member of the Jewish Publication Society's publication committee.[12]

In the U.S., Jacobs also taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.[9]

Jacobs married Georgina Horne and fathered two sons and a daughter. In 1900, when he became revising editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia, based in New York, he settled permanently in the United States.[citation needed]

He died on 30 January 1916 at his home in Yonkers, New York, aged 62.[5][3]


1919 edition of The Book of Wonder Voyages (1896)
1919 edition of The Book of Wonder Voyages (1896)

He was a student of anthropology at the Statistical Laboratory at University College London in the 1880s under Francis Galton. His Studies in Jewish Statistics: Social, Vital and Anthropometric (1891) made his reputation as the first proponent of Jewish race science.[13]

In 1908, he was appointed a member of the board of seven, which made a new English translation of the Bible for the Jewish Publication Society of America.

In 1913, he resigned his positions at the seminary to become editor of the American Hebrew.

In 1920, Book I of his Jewish Contributions to Civilization, which was practically finished at the time of his death, was published at Philadelphia.

In addition to the books already mentioned, Jacobs edited The Fables of Aesop as First Printed by Caxton (1889), Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1890), Baltaser Gracian's Art of Worldly Wisdom (1892), Howell's Letters (1892), Barlaam and Josaphat (1896), The Thousand and One Nights (6 vols, 1896), and others. Jacobs was also a contributor to the Encyclopædia Britannica, and James Hastings' Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics.


Illustration of "A Legend of Knockmany" by John D. Batten for Celtic Fairy Tales (1892)
Illustration of "A Legend of Knockmany" by John D. Batten for Celtic Fairy Tales (1892)

Jacobs edited the journal Folklore from 1899 to 1900 and from 1890 to 1916 he edited multiple collections of fairy tales that were published with illustrations by John Dickson Batten: English Fairy Tales, Celtic Fairy Tales, Indian Fairy Tales, More English Fairy Tales, More Celtic Fairy Tales (all 1890 to 1895) and Europa's Fairy Book (also issued as European Folk and Fairy Tales) in 1916.[14] He was inspired in this by the Brothers Grimm and the romantic nationalism common in folklorists of his age; he wished English children to have access to English fairy tales, whereas they were chiefly reading French and German tales;[15] in his own words, "What Perrault began, the Grimms completed."

Although he collected many tales under the name of fairy tales, many of them are unusual sorts of tales. Binnorie (in English Fairy Tales)[16] and Tamlane (in More English Fairy Tales)[17] are prose versions of ballads, The Old Woman and Her Pig (in English Fairy Tales) is a nursery rhyme, Henny Penny (in English Fairy Tales) is a fable, and The Buried Moon (in More English Fairy Tales) has mythic overtones to an extent unusual in fairy tales. According to his own analysis of English Fairy Tales, "Of the eighty-seven tales contained in my two volumes, thirty-eight are Märchen proper, ten sagas or legends, nineteen drolls, four cumulative stories, six beast tales, and ten nonsense stories."[18]

Reception and legacy

During his lifetime, Jacobs came to be regarded as "one of the leading English authorities" on folklore,[19] and "the leading authority on fairy tales and the migration of fables".[9] Writing in 1954, O. Somech Philips noted that while Jacobs accomplished many things in his life, it was as a folklorist that "people remember him best".[20]

Writing Jacobs' obituary for The American Jewish Year Book, Mayer Sulzberger characterised him as "one of the important figures in the Jewry of our age", adding that he was "in himself a type of the humanity and universality of the Jewish people."[5] Sulzberger praised Jacobs' literary style, commenting that he "wrote with ease and grace" and "might have attained a high place in the illustrious roll of honor of Britain's literary worthies" had he pursued a career in literature.[21] Sulzberger described him as having "a noble nature, incapable of envy", as well an "insatiable thirst for knowledge"; he was "always ready to welcome a fellow-inquirer."[22]


Sulzberger included a list of his books in his obituary:[23]

Jewish and Biblical studies[edit]

Literary criticism and studies[edit]

Fables, Folk and Fairy Tales[edit]

As editor
† Illustrated by John D. Batten


  1. ^ a b c d Contemporary newspaper records show that the most or all of the Fairy Tales collections were published the fall for the Christmas gift-book season, in both Britain and America. Some are generally catalogued as publications of the following year, from their title pages.



  1. ^ " Storytelling, Storytellers, Stories, Storytelling Techniques, Hear a Story, Read Stories, Audio Stories, Find Tellers, How to Tell A Story – Articles About Storytelling". Archived from the original on 27 December 2016. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  2. ^ Sulzberger 1917, p. 68; Phillips 1954, p. 126; Fine 1987, p. 183.
  3. ^ a b G. F. J. Bergman, "Jacobs, Joseph (1854–1916)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, MUP, 1983, pp. 460–461. Retrieved 16 August 2009.
  4. ^ "Jacobs, Joseph (JCBS873J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  5. ^ a b c d Sulzberger 1917, p. 68.
  6. ^ Sulzberger 1917, p. 69.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Sulzberger 1917, p. 70.
  8. ^ a b c Sulzberger 1917, p. 71.
  9. ^ a b c Sulzberger 1917, p. 73.
  10. ^ Sulzberger 1917, pp. 71–72.
  11. ^ a b c Sulzberger 1917, p. 72.
  12. ^ Sulzberger 1917, pp. 72–73.
  13. ^ Langton, Daniel (2014). "Jewish Evolutionary Perspectives on Judaism, Anti-Semitism, and Race Science in Late 19th Century England: A Comparative Study of Lucien Wolf and Joseph Jacobs". Jewish Historical Studies. 46: 37–73.
  14. ^ a b "SurLaLune Fairytales – Illustration Gallery – John D. Batten (1860–1932) British". Retrieved 19 September 2012.
  15. ^ Maria Tatar, p. 345, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ISBN 0-393-05163-3
  16. ^ Jacobs, Joseph; Batten, John D. (1890). English Fairy Tales.
  17. ^ Jacobs, Joseph; Batten, John D. (1894). "Tamlane". More English Fairy Tales (2nd ed.). London: David Nutt: 159–62. ISBN 0-370-01023-X.
  18. ^ "Joseph Jacobs – English Fairy Tales (notes and references)".
  19. ^ Phillips 1954, p. 126.
  20. ^ Phillips 1954, p. 127.
  21. ^ Sulzberger 1917, pp. 68–69.
  22. ^ Sulzberger 1917, p. 74.
  23. ^ Sulzberger 1917, pp. 74–75.


  • Serle, Percival (1949). "Jacobs, Joseph". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. Retrieved 16 August 2009.
  • Dorson, Richard (1968). The British Folklorists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Maidment, Brian C. (1975). "Joseph Jacobs and English Folklore in the 1890s". In Dov Noy; Issachar Ben-Ami (eds.). Studies in the Cultural Life of the Jews in England. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
  • Maidment, Brian (1970–1973), "The Literary Career of Joseph Jacobs, 1876–1900", Transactions & Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England), 24: 101–113, JSTOR 29778806
  • Phillips, O. Somech (September 1954), "Joseph Jacobs 1854–1916", Folklore, 65 (2): 126–127, doi:10.1080/0015587X.1954.9717434, JSTOR 1259167
  • Fine, Gary Alan (1987), "Joseph Jacobs: A Sociological Folklorist", Folklore, 98 (2): 183–193, doi:10.1080/0015587X.1987.9716412, JSTOR 1259979
  • Sulzberger, Mayer (28 September 1917 – 16 September 1917), "Joseph Jacobs", The American Jewish Year Book, 18: 68–75, JSTOR 23600945