The third and fourth son in the Haggadah, the simple one and the one who doesn’t know to ask, are Pesach characters. But in my father’s youth, they were used by kids to chide each other year round.
The One who deosn’t know to ask is depicted by Roedelheim as having his two arms out before him one higher and one lower. Perhaps he is grappling with things, or so young that he is learning by touch?
Among my father’s friends, the gesture of extending the arms this way when joking around meant, “not too bright, ‘eh?”
In this cute article, the author, Touro’s Avenue J campus dean Dr. Henry Abrahamson, explains that early editions of the Maxwell House Haggadah borrowed 17th century woodcuts from an heroic convert from Christianity. Among the artwork is that imbecilic child with his hands asunder.
So, we have located the source and according to that article, the little son appears in the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695, with the art engravings of Abraham bar Jacob, the convert. it is actually a borrowed image of King Saul as he appeared in Christian literature. Now, I don’t believe Saul was depicted by the Christians as an imbecile. Perhaps they were showing him as a child per a literal reading of (Samuel 1 13;1) “At age one Saul was king”. <Now this might be unlikely as modern day Christian Bibles have the text “At age thirty Saul was king”. I do not know which version 17th century Christian scholars followed….but some scholar out there might know?>
(I removed a paragraph about a Hagadah that I thought preceded the Amsterdam Haggadah)
Back to the Maxwell House Haggadah, I would venture that they didn’t borrow the illustrations straight from antiquity, but that their Haggados in the early years were copied from the Roedelheim. I always noted the one or two differences in the text that we are used to – were to be found in the Maxwell House as well. The post 1900 Roedelheim went with the Hebrew facing the translation on two columns of the same page, something Maxwell adopted too- and had these old woodcuts with the “Little Saul” character. A favorite of little boys in pre-war Basel.
Good Yom Tov!