Happy Halloween From the VNP! In honor of the spookiest of holidays, here’s a look back at how Richmonders of the past celebrated Halloween.
For young women at the turn of the century, Halloween presented an opportunity to glimpse into the future and see the face of their husband-to-be by completing one of several complex rituals. The Richmond Dispatch on October 31, 1897 described one such ritual, performed at or near midnight on Halloween.
Wearing her hair loose down her back and barefoot, the curious young woman must light a candle, and descend down her basement stairs backwards. As she walks, she repeats a stanza from Robert Burns’ 1743 poem, “Green Grow the Rashes:” “Auld Nature swears the lovely dears, Her noblest work she classes, O: Her ‘prentice han’ she tried on man, And then she made the lasses, O!”At the bottom of the steps, after turning around twice and taking ten steps, she looks over her shoulder into a mirror. If she is going to be married, she will see the reflection of her husband in the mirror.
The same article explained the soothsaying powers of “ducking for apples.” The instructions begin in a familiar way for those of us who bobbed for apples at harvest festivals or Halloween parties as children: fill a vessel with water and add apples, then close your eyes, lean in, and try to get one. Here, 19th century ducking for apples diverges from the modern incarnation of the game. According to the superstition, those who successfully picked up an apple with their teeth three times in five minutes would dream of their future spouse that night.
On November 1, 1896, the Richmond Dispatch published a poem titled “Girls on Halloween,” which detailed more of the practices girls enlisted to conjure up the image of their future husband. The first two stanzas introduce lead and chestnuts as tools for Halloween revelations.
First, the practice of dropping molten lead into a bucket of water. While the poem suggests that the shape the lead took indicated the occupation of one’s husband, the following year’s Dispatch asserted that the cooled lead would gift one member of a group “the gift of prophesy…and the fates, speaking through him or her, declare what the future is to be.”
Chestnuts’ use on Halloween, described in 1897’s Dispatch as “perfectly legitimate,” were used to determine if a current match was suitable or not. The man and woman would place two chestnuts to roast in the coals of a fire. Chestnuts that roasted gently indicated a life together for the two people, while if the chestnuts should “sputter and fly apart,” they were not to be together for long.
If trying to catch a glimpse of the future wasn’t quite your style, you might, instead, find yourself at one of the many fashionable Halloween parties held in Richmond–and perhaps your name would even grace the society page of the next day’s paper! These parties were described in great detail, decorated with corn and wheat, “festoons of apples,” and jack-o-lanterns, that “grinning, grotesque thing” now synonymous with Halloween. Guests could expect bonfires, and treats of cider and popcorn. (Dispatch, 10/31/1897)
October 20, 1933’s Highland Recorder reported on a new kind of Halloween party: the barn dance. Pictured are movie stars John Gilbert and Virginia Bruce, holding a chicken and a pumpkin, respectively.
For the Richmonder who was too young to be interested in dances and giggling over romantic prospects, there was still Halloween fun to be had. The Richmond Times-Dispatch had a children’s page, which on Halloween was decorated with drawings of witches, black cats, and Jack-O-Lanterns submitted by Richmond’s more artistically-inclined youth.
Illustrated Halloween stories also graced the pages of Richmond’s newspapers, several with animal characters seem particularly geared towards children. One, titled “Animaldom,” published October 27, 1907 in the Times-Dispatch, told the Halloween tale of Bunnies and Squirrels, each out to scare the other with their Jack-O-Lanterns. Both animals make such terrifying creations that both end up equally frightened.
To read histories of Halloween, see old advertisements featuring ghosts and ghouls, and see more Halloween illustrations, try a keyword search on Virginia Chronicle or Chronicling America. As Halloween has been called several things over the years, try searching “All Hallow’s Eve” and “Allhalloween,” in addition to “Halloween.”
By Olin Johnson, Newspaper Project Intern