As spookiness begins to fill the cool Vermont air, ghoulish items lurking in the depths of Special Collections & Archives are coming out to join in the Halloween fun. Be sure to check back all week as we feature ghastly glimpses of the past in a series of posts leading up to the most frightening night of the year.
The first in our series features a mechanical postcard illustrated by Ellen H. Clapsaddle (1865?-1934), an American artist born in New York state. During the golden age of postcards in the early 20th century, holiday-themed greetings were all the rage and Clapsaddle became one of the genre’s most prolific artists. Close to 2,000 postcards have been attributed to Clapsaddle.
This postcard boasts a movable, hinged arm that hopefully made up for the card’s belated arrival sometime after Halloween (scroll down to see the handwritten note on the back of the postcard).
What better way to wish a friend or loved one a “Happy Halloween” than with a postcard depicting a wacky, spooky, romantic Halloween tradition? Today these postcards, now archived as part of a collection of historical postcards in Special Collections, offer a glimpse of Halloween pastimes with Scottish, English, and Irish influences that became party games for early twentieth century Americans.
While we recognize bobbing for apples and roasting chestnuts as typical autumnal activities, these postcards illustrate the soothsaying power Halloween inspires in every household item – from magic mirrors to apple augurs. Who knew that uprooting kale blindfolded in the dead of night could reveal specific details about future loves? Or that an apple peel denotes the initials of your future spouse? Only on Halloween, October’s very own Valentine’s Day.
Nuts, Kale, & Cabbage
Anthropomorphized nuts, paired off with the titles “Uncertainty,” “Hope,” “Despair,” and “Happy Ever After,” represent the practice of interpreting the behavior of chestnuts in a fire. Those participating would assign two chestnuts to a couple and observe whether the chestnuts burned together, jumped apart in the flame, crackled loudly, or came together.
A couple was said to live a long happy life together if their corresponding chestnuts burned brightly and quietly next to each other, or their relationship would end in disaster if they crackled contentiously and popped in different directions.
In a similar gastronomical theme, partygoers would collect cabbage or kale from the garden blindfolded and ascribe various meanings to the experience. Perhaps in continuation of ancient harvest celebrations, this ritual took on romantic implications in the American Hallowe’en context.
If the selected cabbage or kale was difficult to unearth, it denoted difficulty in a relationship. Kale with clumps of dirt stuck to the roots signified a rich husband, and the size, shape, and taste of the kale foretold the physical attributes and personality of a future spouse.
Open Flames & Apple Peels
Another postcard depicts a daring party game in which a stick was suspended horizontally from the ceiling with an apple impaled on one end and a lit candle affixed to the other. The stick was sent spinning while guests attempted to bite the apple – without getting burned by the candle. The skill with which one could capture a bite indicated their fortune in love, and if a player got burned in the game, he or she was certain to be “burned” by a lover. (Special Collections & Archives does not endorse any of the activities described in this post. Please don’t try this at home.)
Apples weren’t just for group play. An apple peel when thrown over the shoulder could disclose a future spouse’s initials, and an unintelligible result denoted spinsterhood (though the reader could interpret her apple peel liberally).
Blindfolds & Finger Bowls
Another fun party game used bowls of different substances, illustrated in these postcards. Blindfolded players would select a bowl, and its contents would reveal their fate. Clear water signified marriage to a young and fair mate, vinegar denoted widowhood, and an empty bowl meant solitude.
Mirrors also took on special powers on All Hallow’s Eve, as depicted on the following postcards.
In fact, your true love’s face was said to appear in a mirror if you performed various activities on Halloween night. Such as, brushing your hair…
…abandoning your party guests to steal to your room with a Jack-o-lantern…
…or, walking down the cellar stairs backwards with a candle in one hand, a mirror in the other, and a mouthful of salt. If you didn’t trip and break your neck, you would live happily ever after with your love until a peaceful, sodium-induced demise.
All in the name of love and the spirit of Halloween!
Arkins, Diane C. Halloween: Romanic Art and Customs of Yesteryear. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2007.
From the restricted-access bowels of the library basement come wonders like you’ve never seen (and still can’t because it’s radio).
Join us on WRMC 91.1 FM Mondays, from 9am-10am for Stacks and Tracks, a special collections and archives-themed radio show. We’ll play songs loosely based on a theme, share hidden gems from the library stacks, and coax special guests to join us.
Tune-in at 91.9FM, on iTunes radio, listen online here, or on your phone using tunein radio (download the app and search for WRMC).
Visit us. We’re open M-F, 1p-5p in the basement of Davis Library. Meet the voices behind Stacks and Tracks and see some hidden gems with your own eyes.
After populating various campus buildings for the last few weeks, banners portraying these eight leading women from Middlebury’s history now stand in the Davis Library atrium in honor of President Laurie Patton’s inauguration, taking place this Sunday, October 11th. Additional information about each of these women can be found at go/specialblog or in person at the library. May Belle Chellis
Will you be the next Midd woman to make history? Picture yourself among these women by posting a selfie with the display (tag @middleburyspecialcollections) on instagram, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Five classes visited Special Collections last week, studying a wide range of materials. We shared hundreds of items, from classic Greek stories published in Venice in the 15th century, to an 18th century Torah, to 1930s government reports on eugenics policy in Vermont.
In honor of the inauguration of Laurie L. Patton as the seventeenth president on Sunday, October 11, 2015, Special Collections & Archives will feature remarkable women from the College’s history in eight temporary exhibits spread across campus, now through October 5th. Catherine Emma Robbins can be found in the Virtue Field House and in Atwater Dining Hall.
Four years after graduating from Middlebury College in 1923, Cornwall, Vermont, native Catherine Emma Robbins became the first woman to hike the Long Trail in its entirety—without a male guide. She, along with her two companions—Hilda Kurth, who fled to the mountains to avoid a man who wanted to marry her, and Kathleen Norris, who, despite her father’s death, resolved to make the trip on her own—made headlines across the country as “The Three Musketeers.” Robbins’ motto for the trip, “The Musketeers must get there!,” embodies the camaraderie and drive that inspired her both as a hiker on the Long Trail and as a three-sport athlete and Theta Chi Epsilon sorority member at Middlebury.
After the hike, she continued teaching in Vermont high schools. She died at age 97 but not before her two granddaughters, Cara Clifford Nelson and Amity Clifford [Robichaud] reprised the hike in 1997, seventy years after Robbins blazed the trail, raising funds for the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail Protection Campaign.
Two new exhibits have cropped up in the library this week – “Old Friends and New: Writers in Nature, 1847-2000” in the atrium and “Reading Nature” in the lower level Harman Reading Room. Both feature books that explore literary and scientific human interaction with the environment to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College.
The main floor exhibit “Old Friends and New” contains books and archives produced by authors deeply rooted in the natural world.
From Henry David Thoreau to John Freidin, this collection showcases the importance of nature as it exists outdoors as well as within the minds and pages of these authors.