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 though—I’m talking about Halloween! Halloween is always special to us here at DiMenna Children’s History Museum, especially now that we have Harry Potter: A History of Magic on view. In fact, partygoers at our annual Historical Hallowe’en Family Party on Sunday, October 28 will get to visit the exhibition! Party attendees will also get to enjoy a variety of festive activities inspired by All Hallows’ Eve fetes of the Victorian era. Let’s take a look at some Halloween history and one particular element of our annual party that 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.
Some types of future-telling have formal Greek names, all of which end in the suffix “–mancy”, meaning “divination by he means of”. Reading the shapes of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup- formally called tasseography or tasseomancy- was also supposed to reveal a girl’s romantic future. The spookiest versions of spouse-divining games involved a person going into a dark room or walking down a staircase backward, with a lit candle to hopefully see shadows of their future mate beside them or in a mirror. Mirror divination is known as catroptomancy. 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.” Reading the future using lead is known as molybdomancy. We’ll leave molten lead in the past, thanks.
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 common fall foods. 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. A seasonal food that gets less Halloween-related attention now than it did a century ago is cabbage. Even centuries before the 1800s, rural celebrants of All Hallows’ Eve would pull cabbage or kale stalks from the ground and inspect the roots for length, strength and soil to foresee their future prospects. This activity is recorded in the famous Robert Burns poem from 1785 Halloween. This poem was written in Scottish but here you can read an English translation:
Then, first and foremost, through the cabbage,
Their stocks of wheat are sought at once;
They touch their own, and grasp and choose,
For very strong and straight ones.
Poor fellow Will fell off the drift,
And wander’d through the cabbage,
And pulled, for want o’ better shift,
A cabbage like a pig’s-tail,
So bent that night.
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. 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 Historical Hallowe’en Family Party and see what the hand of fate holds in store for you! Meet fortune=tellers throughout the party waiting to read your palm, tea leaves, and more. We’re not seers ourselves, but here’s one thing we think we can predict: See you there!
Written by Rachel Walman,
Assistant Director, DiMenna Children’s History Museum
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