Tag Archives: Special Collections

Happy Hallowe’en from Special Collections & Archives: Pumpkins and Postcards and Portents – Oh My!

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.

Postmarked 1911
Postmarked 1911, Peoria, Illinois

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).



Postmarked 1912, Brooklyn, NY
Postmarked 1912, Brooklyn, NY


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.

Postmarked 1909, Duluth, Minnesota, sent to Cleveland, Ohio


Postmarked 1923, Williamsport, PA, "From a Friend"
Postmarked 1923, Williamsport, PA, “From a Friend”

Mirror, Mirror

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…

Postmarked 1909, St. Paul, Minnesota
Postmarked 1909, St. Paul, Minnesota

…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!

These lurking mirror-gazers were sent to Jackson, Michigan in 1910 with the mysterious note, as seen below: “GESS WHO I AM IF YOU CAN.”



Arkins, Diane C. Halloween: Romanic Art and Customs of Yesteryear. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2007.

C-132 Historic Postcards & Ephemera, Special Collections & Archives, Middlebury College.

“Stacks and Tracks” Special Collections on the radio

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.

Special Collections Postgraduate Fellow for Special Collections, Mikaela Taylor, bringing you tracks from the stacks in the WRMC studio October 5, 2015. Photo by Rebekah Irwin, Curator of Special Collections.


Helen Flanders
Helen Hartness Flanders, Vermont ethnographer and song-collector, with a recording device, date unknown. From the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection, Special Collections & Archives, Middlebury College.

The Library Celebrates President Patton’s Inauguration


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

Mary Annette Anderson 

Charlotte May Johnson

Rhoda Mabel White

Eleanor Sybil Ross

Catherine Emma Robbins 

Viola Chittenden White 

Gertrude Cornish Milliken

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 specialcollections@middlebury.edu.

Classes Visiting Special Collections

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.

Italian Renaissance Art with Prof. Carrie Anderson
Italian Renaissance Art with Prof. Carrie Anderson
Native North America with Prof. Marybeth Nevins
Native North America with Prof. Marybeth Nevins
Reading Slavery and Abolition with Prof. Will Nash
Reading Slavery and Abolition with Prof. Will Nash
Middle Eastern Political Religion with Prof. Shalom Goldman
Middle Eastern Political Religion with Prof. Shalom Goldman
The Ten Commandments with Prof. Shalom Goldman
The Ten Commandments with Prof. Shalom Goldman

Catherine Emma Robbins, A Long Trail-blazer

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.

Catherine Robbins Long Trail 2
The Three Musketeers on the Long Trail at Hazens Notch (left to right Catherine Robbins, Hilda Kurth, and Kathleen Norris)

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.


Catherine Robbins yearbook
Catherine Robbins’ Yearbook Photo 1923
The 1924 Long Trail Guidebook used by Robbins on her hike with her notes, provided by granddaughter Cara Nelson 
Catherine Robbins Clifford with granddaughters Amity Robichaud and Cara Nelson, (and a Middlebury poster in the background). Photo provided by Cara Nelson
Final page in Catherine Robbins’ Long Trail scrapbook; provided by Cara Nelson

Davis Library Fall atrium exhibit: Old Friends and New: Writers in Nature, 1847-2000

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.

John Muir and John Burroughs, 1909
RERobinson in woods
Artist, naturalist, and writer Rowland Evans Robinson (1833-1900)

















Title page, Julia Butterfly Hill's The Legacy of Luna, 2000
Title page, Julia Butterfly Hill’s The Legacy of Luna, 2000

Davis Library Fall lower level exhibit: Reading Nature

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.

brown pear signs less text“Reading Nature” on the lower level of the library features books by scientists, botanists, naturalists, artists, and poets from the beginning of the 18th century to the 20th century. Each captures nature in a new way, redrawing the frames through which we understand the natural world.


Pages from Annie M Ward's "Notes on Botany," 1850-1860
Pages from Annie M Ward’s “Notes on Botany,” 1850-1860


"Cloud Crystals: A Snowflake Album Collected and Edited by a Lady" by Frances Chickering, 1864
“Cloud Crystals: A Snowflake Album Collected and Edited by a Lady” by Frances Chickering, 1864
Butterfly diagram from "The Aurelian" by Moses Harris, 1840
Butterfly diagram from “The Aurelian” by Moses Harris, 1840; Recent Gift of Julia Emerson, Class of 1965