The earliest known published version of it comes from a manuscript dated to around 1730 (but it differs in referring to "nine" rather than "seven" wives). The modern form was first printed around 1825. A similar problem appears in the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (Problem 79), dated to around 1650 BC, which could be described with the following text:
There are seven houses;
In each house there are seven cats;
Each cat catches seven mice;
Each mouse would have eaten seven ears of corn;
If sown, each ear of corn would have produced seven hekat of grain.
There are a number of places called St Ives in England and elsewhere. It is generally thought that the rhyme refers to St Ives, Cornwall, when it was a busy fishing port and had many cats to stop the rats and mice destroying the fishing gear, although some people argue it was St Ives, Huntingdonshire as this is an ancient market town and therefore an equally plausible destination.
All potential answers to this riddle are based on its ambiguity because the riddle only tells us the group has been "met" on the journey to St. Ives and gives no further information about its intentions, only those of the narrator. As such, the 'correct' answer could be stated as "at least one, the person asking the question plus anyone who happens to be travelling in the same direction as him or her".
If the group that the narrator meets is assumed not to be travelling to St. Ives the answer would be one person going to St. Ives: the narrator. This is the most common assumption, as the purpose of the riddle was most likely to trick the listener into making long winded calculations only to be surprised by the simplicity of the answer.
If it is not accepted that there is a 'trick' answer, then there are numerous (possibly infinite) mathematical answers, the most common of which is 2802: If the narrator met the group as they were also travelling to St. Ives and were overtaken by the narrator  the answer in this case is all are going to St. Ives. The ambiguity that leads to this answer may be a less strict modern use of the word 'met' where it replaces the more accurate 'passed' or 'overtook'; "to meet someone on the road" may have been commonly used for those going in opposite directions on narrow roads as in the first edition of The Highway Code.
The problem appears to be an illustration of an algorithm for multiplying numbers. The sequence 7, 7 × 7, 7 × 7 × 7, ..., appears in the right-hand column, and the terms 2,801, 2 × 2,801, 4 × 2,801 appear in the left; the sum on the left is 7 × 2,801 = 19,607, the same as the sum of the terms on the right. Note that the author of the papyrus listed a wrong value for the fourth power of 7; it should be 2,401, not 2,301. However, the sum of the powers (19,607) is correct.
The problem has been paraphrased by modern commentators as a story problem involving houses, cats, mice, and grain, although in the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus there is no discussion beyond the bare outline stated above. The hekat was 1⁄30 of a cubic cubit (approximately 4.8 l or 1.1 imp gal or 1.3 US gal).
Use in popular culture
It was parodied by Roald Dahl in his poetry book Rhyme Stew (1989): "As I was going to St Ives/ I met a man with seven wives/ he said: "I think it's much more fun/ than getting stuck with only one."
In the 1995 filmDie Hard with a Vengeance, the rhyme is presented to the protagonists by the villain as a riddle, giving them thirty seconds to telephone him on the number "555 plus the answer" or a bomb would detonate. The protagonists initially believe the answer to be 2401, only solving for the number of kits. However, they eventually solve the riddle, calling the number 555–0001 which proves to be correct. They missed the 30-second deadline, but the bomb did not explode since the villain had not said "Simon says."
The rhyme was recited by Mary Murphy's character while caring for a cat with seven kittens in the movie A Man Alone. Later the character played by Ray Milland who overheard the rhyme offers her the answer and Murphy's character explains that she alone was going to St. Ives.
The rhyme was also the basis of a Sesame Street Muppet skit from the show's first season, in which the boy Muppet holding a numeral 7 sings the rhyme as a song to the girl Muppet twice (the second time, the girl is busy writing down the calculations) and finally, in keeping true to the spirit of the riddle, reveals the answer as 1 (the traditional answer), because he was going to St. Ives and the kits, cats, sacks and wives were going the other way. Then the girl turns the tables on the boy and asks how many were going the other way. She then reveals the mathematical answer from her calculations: 1 man + 7 wives + 49 sacks + 343 cats + 2,401 kittens, which comes to 2,801. Astonished, the boy responds, "How about that?!"
The rhyme was also featured in a Pogo comic story, "More Mother Goosery Rinds" in which Albert Alligator himself portrays Mother Goose and Pogo a traveling musician. After going over several Mother Goose rhymes they get to the St. Ives riddle, albeit replacing "seven" with "forty" and while Albert (Mother Goose) keeps trying to cogitate the answer, Pogo boasts he knows it...and he answers "one", which baffles "Mother Goose" (Albert Alligator). Pogo says that if the kits, cats, sacks and wives weren't going to St. Ives, maybe they were going somewhere else, such as Altoona, Pennsylvania. So Albert again recites the riddle, this time ending with "Kits, cats, sacks, wives, how many were going to...ALTOONA??" But by this time, Pogo has already gone upon his way.
Mad magazine used it in at least two articles over the years for the following parodies:
British poet and humorist Colin West wrote a satire on "As I was going to St Ives", called "As I Went Down To Milton Keynes". The items listed are "a king with seven queens", and for every queen a prince, for every prince a princess, for every princess an earl, for every earl a lady, for every lady a baby, and for every baby a cat.
A variant of the riddle also appears in an optional side quest in the video game "Silent Hill 3" when the player plays the game on the riddle difficulty Hard. It is used to obtain a part of a code which can be used to unlock extra in-game content.
Another variant of the riddle appears in a side quest in the game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in which the player, during a game of riddles, can pose the question of "How many are flying to Dantooine?" to win the game. The items listed are "five ships, each ship has five crewmen, each crewman has five pets".