In the nursery rhyme Hot Cross Buns, there's the line

One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns

Does this mean that you can buy a hot cross bun for either 1p or 0.5p? If so, why would anyone buy only one bun?

1 Answer 1


No paradox involved. Hot cross buns were traditionally consumed at the end of Lent, and the nursery rhyme derives from the cries of street vendors. For example:

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns;
One a penny poker,
Two a penny tongs,
Three a penny fire shovel,
Hot cross buns.

Presumably, a one-penny bun was of better quality (or simply larger) than a half-penny bun. Going by the comparisons with fireside implements in the above street-cry, my guess is that it would be the quality that varies.

  • Poker -- used to stoke a fire, and therefore relatively clean.
  • Tongs -- used to handle coals and therefore likely to be contaminated with coal dust.
  • Fire shovel -- used to remove the ashes from the grate of a fire.

One might consider the social class of the people likely to use these implements in an upper-class household in, say, Victorian times. A poker might be used by the owner of the household if he/she did not want to bother a servant. Tongs (to make up a fire) would probably be used by the butler or a maid. Lastly, cleaning out the fire grate would probably be the job of a scullery maid.

Wikipedia has a interesting, albeit short, entry, and gives the earliest known street cry containing the phrase "one or two a penny" a date of 1733 (Poor Robin's Almanack). An online currency converter indicates that 1d (one penny) in 1730 would have a purchasing power of about £0.49 (UK) today. Supermarket prices of £0.38 and £0.15 for premium and cheap Hot Cross Buns (Tesco) compare favourably with 1730 street prices. (Thanks to Gareth Rees for this info.)

Wikipedia : Hot Cross Buns

  • 5
    Even today, Tesco has cheap hot cross buns for 15p, and expensive hot cross buns for 38p. Jul 24, 2020 at 8:08
  • 3
    @GarethRees And 1d (one penny) in 1900 is equivalent to about 33p today, so it figures.
    – Mick
    Jul 24, 2020 at 8:12
  • 1
    Still, I'm definitely going to refer to the 'hot cross bun paradox' in my next treatise, like it's a thing already.
    – Strawberry
    Jul 24, 2020 at 9:33
  • 1
    @Strawberry Everyone loves a paradox, and a conspiracy theory even more. You are going to have to campaign hard to get my exposé deleted, though. 😜
    – Mick
    Jul 24, 2020 at 10:25
  • The real paradox is what I'm meant to do with them if I don't have daughters or sons.
    – Showsni
    Jul 24, 2020 at 12:49

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