Written by Rachel Walman
We’re looking back on that time of year when 19th-century Americans celebrated the end of a cycle of seasons and began to look forward to the year ahead…no, I’m not talking about the New Year—I’m talking about Halloween!
The holiday we celebrate today on the 31st of October is a hodge podge of traditions, mixing together elements from the ancient Celtic festival Samhain, the Catholic All Saints Day, and the European and American pastimes of children or the poor dressing up and performing tricks in order to win food and money from elites. To celebrate, join us on Sunday, October 30, at the Museum to enjoy our fourth annual Historical Halloween Ball. This year, we’re drawing inspiration from opulent costume balls of the past, but we’re also maintaining our tradition of bringing you the more common entertainments of a 19th-century Halloween party—the era when such a party truly began. To learn about Gilded Age costumed capers, you’ll just have to come to the party! But here’s a preview of a true 19th-century craze that our party will capture you now just as it would have 100 years ago: fortune telling!
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. 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 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.”
It must have been a sad affair for women whose hickory nuts burned or stayed still! One can only wonder how many marriages were made or headed off at the pass because of such games.
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 only teeth. Lest you think that choking is only a modern concern in 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 materials 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, including Mary E Blain’s 1912 “Games for Hallow-e’en,” which you can read on Google Books here. Notice the awesome suggestions Blain has for party invitations. This one is my favorite:
We hope you will frolic with the “Choice Spirits of Darkness” at the DiMenna Creepy History Museum Historical Halloween Ball on Sunday, October 30, and see what the hand of fate holds in store for you! We’ll have fortune tellers throughout the lower level of our two-story party waiting to read your palm and tea leaves, predict your future with appleseeds, and more! One thing we can predict with certainty: you’ll save money by purchasing tickets in advance online. See you at the ball!