Halloween History: Fortune Telling Games

Halloween has a fascinating history, and the New-York Historical Society will explore some of it at our first Spirits of Hallowe’ens Past family party. The party will take place on Halloween from 5-7 pm and is free with Museum admission. The night’s activities are inspiring a series of Halloween History blog posts. This first post in the series is about a forgotten Halloween party pastime, popular from the 1880s through the 1930s: fortune telling games.

In this spooky 1901 board game, a magnetic spinner allows you to play three versions of the game. In one, the “hand” of fate chooses answers for you; in another, your fortune is revealed according to your birthday; and in another, true or false questions are posed and answers are determined by landing on odd or even numbers around the board.

What we now think of as Halloween- a holiday on which the veil between the living and the dead supposedly lifts, celebrated with costumes and treats- started to take shape in the late 1800s. Trick-or-treating began in the 1920s but really took off in the 1950s (more on that in a future blog post!). Before trick-or-treating, parties were the Thing To Do on Halloween. These parties, more often for adults than children, celebrated the season with fall foods and drinks…and a whole lot of attempts to foresee the future. Many fortune-telling activities were designed for young women to find out if they would soon get married. These games range from the sober to silly to spooky to downright dangerous (for health, not Halloween reasons). First, the sober:  Anna Margaret Price described one common game in an October, 1897 article for Ladies Home Journal entitled “Merry Halloween Games.”

“Great amusement may be had by placing two hickory-nuts…on the hearth in front of an open fire. One is supposed to represent the girl who places it there, and the other, her as yet undeclared, but mentally-chosen lover. Should the nuts burn brightly a happy marriage will result. Should the nut named after the man jump toward the nut named after the girl she may expect a proposal before the next new moon.”

Reading tea leaves, popular at Halloween parties in the late 1800s, was a much older fortune-telling tradition. This painting was done in 1838.
Reading tea leaves, popular at Halloween parties in the late 1800s, was a much older fortune-telling tradition. This painting was done in 1838.

Reading the shapes of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup (as seen in the painting above) was also supposed to reveal a girl’s romantic future. The spookiest versions of husband-divining games involved a girl going into a dark room with a lit candle to hopefully see shadows of her future husband beside her or in a mirror. In her article, Ms. Price described another game that seems like a major health hazard to modern minds. She wrote that “Lead, melted in large iron spoons, may be dropped in water, and fortunes told from the shapes which it assumes.”  Unbeknownst to revelers in her time,  accidentally eating this lead could have led to brain damage. No one could have foreseen that in 1897.

Another game from the past that seems more fraught than fun, was the child’s game of trying to pick pennies out of a plate of flour with teeth only. Lest you think that choking is only a modern concern about this game, a 1944 New York Times article reported that “one youngster who inhaled while competing [in the face-in-flour game] was hastily extricated” from a Children’s Aid Society Halloween party on the lower east side.

Many other fortune telling games involved apples. Apples were sometimes hung from the ceiling from strings and plucked with the teeth. The color of the chosen apple could mean future wealth, love, or luck. Apples were tossed at a target for luck and apple seeds were used to tell fortunes in other games. It makes sense that apples were such popular Halloween game material considering they are in season and plentiful in October (much like another Halloween food favorite, the pumpkin).

Halloween fortune-telling games were once so abundant and popular that at least one book was written about them. You can read Mary E Blain’s 1912 “Games for Hallow-e’en” on Google Books by clicking the book’s title here.  Notice the awesome suggestions Blain has for party invitations. This one is my favorite:


We hope you will come frolic with the Choice Spirits of Darkness at Spirits of Hallowe’ens Past and see what the hand of fate holds in store for you!


Anna Margaret Price, “Merry Halloween Games,” The Ladies’s Home Journal (1889-1907); Oct 1897, Vol. XIV,, No. 11; American Periodicals pg. 25.

Children Compete at Halloween Party, New York Times (1923-current file); Oct 28, 1944; ProQuest Historical Newspapers; The New York Times (1851-2009) p. 19

Image of Board Game: Hand of Fate Fortune Telling Game, Mcloughlin Bros., 1901, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, inventory number: 2000.476

Image of Painting: Dregs in the cup (Fortune Telling, The Fortune Teller), William Sidney Mount, 1838, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, inventory number: 1858.57

Party invitation: Mary E Blain, Games for Hallow-e’en, (New York, Barse & Hopkins, 1912) 8


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