Children’s books of the 1780s were very moralistic and were bought by parents in hope of instilling a behavioral message that would make an impression on their children. One of the most popular titles of the day was a children’s novel titled The History of Little Goody Two Shoes. Originally published in London in 1765, it remained a popular children’s book well into the 19th century.
The title character was a morally upright and proper child whose name lives on to this very day as a reference to someone who is thought to be overly moral, prudish and excessively virtuous in a self-righteous manner. The child character’s name was Margery Meanwell, and she begins the story as a poor orphan girl who is so destitute that she has only one shoe to wear. When a gentleman observes her situation and gives her a new pair of shoes, she happily announces to her friends that she has “two shoes.” Thus, her nickname was born, a combination of references to her good and upright behavior and her receiving a pair of shoes from a benefactor.
The novel follows Margery/Goody Two Shoes into adulthood where she becomes a beloved teacher and marries a rich man, her reward, evidently, for leading an upstanding and ethical life. She teaches her students, and models for other adults, the qualities of kindness, generosity and tolerance. These were qualities that parents wished their children to practice. However, if today one is referenced as a “goody two shoes” it is usually not meant as a compliment. This is because the overstated and inflated moral tone of the original “Little Goody Two Shoes” is amusing, and sometimes hilarious, by today’s standards.