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“The Old Time”

It was Mr. Boast’s favorite song. He had been twenty-one when he met Mrs. Boast, and she had been seventeen. Her name was really Ella, but Mr. Boast called her Nell… — By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 22, “Happy Winter Days”

The Old Time or “When You Were Seventeen” was published in 1873 by C.H. Ditson & Company, New York. The words were from a poem published in The Home Journal, set to music by J.R. Thomas. The Home Journal was a weekly publication in print from 1872-1874. It was a family paper of “news and novels, fancy and criticism.”

John Rogers Thomas (1830-1896) was a composer and singer who wrote more than 140 songs between 1870 and 1885, both for voice and piano. He wrote popular songs such as “Old Friends, Old Times” (1856), “When the War is Over, Mary” (1864), and “Rose of Killarney” (1876).

Although Laura Ingalls Wilder implies that the Boasts are newlyweds in By the Shores of Silver Lake, they were married in 1869, so they had been married ten years before moving to Dakota Territory and three years before “The Old Time” was published. They were, however, married when he was one and twenty, and she was seventeen!


1. ‘Twas when the hay was mown, Maggie,
In the long years ago,
And while the western sky was rich
With sunset’s rosy glow,
Then hand in hand close linked we pass’d
The dewy ricks between,
When I was one and twenty, Mag,
And you were seventeen.

2. Your voice was low and sweet, Maggie,
Your wavy hair was brown,
Your cheek was like the wild red rose
That showr’s its petals down.
Your eyes were like the blue speedwell
With dewy moisture sheen,
When I was one and twenty, Mag,
And you were seventeen.

3. The years have come and gone, Maggie,
With sunshine and with shade,
And silvered is the silken hair
That o’er your shoulders stayed.
In many a soft and wayward tress
The fairest ever seen
When I was one and twenty, Mag,
And you were seventeen.

4. Though gently changing time, Maggie,
Has touched you in his flight,
Your voice has still the old sweet tone
Your eyes the old love light.
And years can never, never change
The heart you gave, I ween,
When I was one and twenty, Mag,
And you were seventeen.

THE OLD TIME (from By the Shores of Silver Lake)

When I was one and twenty, Nell, And you were seventeen…



Click on the images above to view a copy of original sheet music of The Old Time.”

This music is archived in the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, part of Special Collections at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library of The Johns Hopkins University. The collection contains over 29,000 pieces of music and focuses on popular American music from 1780-1960.    


“The Old Time” (SSL 22; PG)
     “When I was one and twenty, Nell, and you were seventeen”