Asheville Archives: Halloween superstitions near the start of the 20th century

PASS THE SALT: In centuries past, Halloween traditions often focused on finding your soulmate, rather than scoring candy. Methods varied from innocent practices to outright dangerous techniques. Illustration by Irene Olds

Today we associate Halloween with costumes, candy and jack-o’-lanterns. But at the start of the 20th century holiday customs were quite different. The supernatural remained a component, but a large emphasis was on romance.

“Hallowe’en is essentially a lover’s feast and its superstitions will continue to live so long as the more mysterious reality, love, has an existence,” declared the Nov. 1, 1898, edition of The Asheville Gazette.

The majority of these bygone traditions sought to identify one’s soulmate. Information was gleaned in a variety of ways — from innocent practices to outright dangerous techniques.

Among the innocuous was a “Halloween pill,” reported by The Asheville Citizen on Oct. 30, 1902. Made from grated coconut, a small piece of cheese, half an English walnut and honey, the paper claimed the tablet would “bring about the most astonishing and satisfactory results.”

Readers were instructed to swallow “the magic pill just before going to bed.” According to the paper, “if your dreams are rosy and pleasant you will soon win a handsome and gentle lover.” However, The Asheville Citizen warned, “If your dreams are bad you will marry a scamp of a highwayman or a scold, or vixen, as the case may be and will be doomed to sorrow.”

Yet another tradition involved the burning of unshelled almonds. This custom, as noted in the Oct. 30, 1901, edition of The Asheville Citizen, required participants to name each almond prior to setting them ablaze.

“The length and time that they burn is indicative of the strength of affection in the persons for whom they are named,” the paper asserted. “Total consumption by the flame of a nut means marriage.” Meanwhile, “if the nut burns with flickering flame the person is fickle,” the paper warned.

The same article offered a series of additional superstitions. One involved an apple. If the fruit was consumed alone in front of a candlelit mirror, the paper wrote, “the face of your future companion will be seen in the glass.”

Yet another involved a blindfolded subject led to three bowls. The first bowl held water, the second was filled with a hazy water or milk, and the third bowl stood empty. “If he places his hand in the vessel of clear water, he will marry a maid, if in the cloudy water, a widow and if in the empty dish, he will not marry,” the paper wrote.

Hands down, the most bizarre and wildly dangerous superstition appeared in the Nov. 1, 1898, edition of The Asheville Gazette. Based on the report, this particular practice (“attended with something of torture”), was rather popular among young women eager “to satiate an abnormal curiosity to peep into the future.”

Declared a fallacy by the paper, the activity involved the yolk’s removal from a hardboiled egg, replaced with salt. “The egg must then be eaten, salt and all,” The Asheville Gazette reported. “If the subject survives this terrible ordeal she will be awakened in the night by the man whom she will some day marry offering her a drink of water.”

“There is no evidence to show that the methods of divination at present usually resorted to were originally regarded as limited in the efficacy to any one day,” The Asheville Citizen wrote on Oct. 30, 1902. “But on Halloween especially spirits were supposed to walk the earth, strange dreams foretold prosperity or adversity, lovers were tested by various charms, future marriages were arranged and the wilder the superstition the more current its belief.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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