The name Jack Sprat was used of people of small stature in the sixteenth century. This rhyme was an English proverb from at least the mid-seventeenth century. It appeared in John Clarke's collection of sayings in 1639 in the form:
Jack will eat not fat, and Jull doth love no leane.
Yet betwixt them both they lick the dishes cleane.
The saying entered the canon of English nursery rhymes when it was printed in Mother Goose's Melody around 1765, but it may have been adopted for use with children much earlier.
In popular culture
Pittsburgh Steelers iconic middle linebacker of the 1970s, Jack Lambert, had a nickname of "Jack Splat" that played on the nursery rhyme. He was noted for his excellent tackling skills as well as intense play, hence opposing ball carriers would go "splat" when tackled.
In the comic book series Fables, Mrs. Sprat is briefly seen. As the rhyme tells, she's a morbidly obese nurse, in the employ of Dr. Swineheart, in Fabletown. Despite being mentioned as one of the victims of Ghost the Zephyr son of Snow White and Bigby Wolf, she survives, and during Mr. Dark's invasion she defects the fables to him in exchange for being remade a lithe, beautiful woman. Rechristening herself as Leigh Douglas (Douglas being apparently her maiden name) she vows to make all fables suffer for her past humiliation as a grotesquely obese character, but with Dark's downfall she defects again, begrudingly returning among the Fables in her capacity as a nurse.
In G. Paul Lucas's artworks, mixed-media photomontage is used to offer a contemporary interpretation of Jack Sprat and his rotund wife. Inspired from early childhood by this Mother Goose rhyme, Lucas creates a world in which the slovenly, beer-drinking Jack is "taken care of" in more ways than one by his dissatisfied, hot-tempered wife.
Episodes of both television series Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide use the name Jack Sprat. Sabrina uses it as a fake name when she drinks "Boy Brew" to become a guy to listen in on conversations Harvey has with his friends. The new kid janitor who tries to take over Gordy's job is named Jack Sprat in the episode "New Kid".
In a segment of "Vital Information" on an episode of All That, one of the bits of information was, "Contrary to popular belief, Jack Sprat can eat fat. You just gotta hold Jack down and shove that fat down his throat!".
^ abcdeI. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), p. 238.