It’s that time of year when 19th and early 20th century Americans celebrated the end of a cycle of seasons and began to look forward to the year ahead. I’m not talking about New Year’s Eve though—I’m talking about Halloween! The holiday we now celebrate is a hodgepodge of traditions taken from the ancient, Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in), Catholic All Saints Day, and European and American pastimes of people dressing up and performing “tricks” in order to win food and money.
On Sunday, October 29, join us at the Museum to enjoy our 5th annual Haunted Halloween Party. As is our tradition, this event recreates the 19th- and 20th-century festivities you would have experienced at the turn-of-the-century—when Halloween traditions as we know them really started to take shape. Of course, we also like to put our own fun, modern spin on things! This year’s party features an escape-type mystery room created by Mystery Room NYC, the spooky storytelling skills of acclaimed entertainer April Armstrong, and the chance to get your photo taken with a spirit! But one crucial element of our annual party comes directly from parties 100 years ago: fortune-telling games.
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, and to whom. These games ranged from sober to silly, from spooky to downright dangerous. 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 arranged or avoided because of such games.
Reading the shapes of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup 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.
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—using only their teeth! Lest you think that choking is only a modern concern for this game, a 1944 article in the New York Times 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 also tossed at a target for luck, and apple seeds were used to tell fortunes in other games. It makes sense that apples were so popular for Halloween game considering they are in season in October in many parts of this country—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. Notice the awesome suggestions Blain has for party invitations. This is one of our favorites:
We hope you’ll join us to frolic with the Choice Spirits of Darkness at the DiMenna Creepy History Museum Haunted Hallowe’en Party and see what the hand of fate holds in store for you! Meet fortune tellers throughout party waiting to read your palm and tea leaves and more. This year, you’ll also have a chance to make your own magic mirror for at-home soothsaying. (Spoooooky stuff!) We’re not seers ourselves, but here’s one thing we can predict with certainty: You’ll save money by purchasing party tickets in advance online. Buy them here. See you there!
Written by Rachel Walman, assistant director for family programs
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