The Romance of Halloween in Turn-of-the-Century Ocean Grove

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Antique Halloween postcard portraying a woman playing a divination game, revealing to her the identity of the man who loves her.

We tend to think of Halloween primarily as the “scary” holiday, a time to laugh in the faces of fearful icons like witches, zombies and vampires. If I were to ask you which is the most romantic of all holidays, you might answer with “Valentine’s Day” or even “Christmas”, but probably not “Halloween”. However, in the minds of many Americans at the turn of the 19th century, Halloween was synonymous with romantic pairings.

Between roughly the 1880s and the 1920s, hopeful hearts would look to October 31st to bring the promise of new love. Hey, why wait ’til February 14th?

Harkening back hundreds of years to Pagan celebrations in the British Isles and on the European continent, autumn was considered the time of year when the veil separating the worlds of the dead and the living was temporarily lifted. Conditions were thought to be optimal for communicating with the dead, and for those with certain gifts, like fortune tellers, entities from “the other side” were believed to assist in manifesting visions of the future. Fortune telling became a common aspect of Halloween that persisted for generations.

By the time these ancient practices were passed down to the Victorians and made their way across the ocean to America, they’d morphed into an annual tradition that had as much to do with Cupid’s arrow as it did with carving jack-o-lanterns and shouting “Boo!”.

Lesley Bannatyne is a Halloween historian and the author of several books on the holiday, including Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History. Bannatyne has this to say about turn-of-the-century Halloween and its distinct shades of romance: “Halloween celebrations in the Victorian age seem to be made of one part romantic inspiration, one part reconstructed history, and one part Victorian marketing. Halloween stories became almost operatic with regard to passion, and less concerned with actual ghosts.”

In celebrating Halloween, Victorians threw parties at which they played divination parlor games, and many were designed to reveal the identity of one’s future spouse. This was often reflected in short stories published in magazines and newspapers of the day. Writes Bannatyne, “The historical divination games of Halloween were often used by Victorian storytellers as devices to shuffle their lovers together…Heroines ate apples at midnight on Halloween while looking in a mirror for the face of a future husband. They followed balls of unwound yarn to dark barns and cellars, falling helplessly into the arms of some gallant hero. They cooked dumb suppers, attended raging, romantic bonfires, put nuts on grates and even bobbed for apples.”

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Vintage Halloween postcard showing a woman playing a divination game wherein an apple peel is thrown over the shoulder, and is said to land on the floor in the shape of the first initial of her future husband’s name.

I did some research on Victorian divination games a few years ago when I was planning a Halloween dinner party. My guests and I re-created several 19th century Halloween games, including this one:

On Halloween, carve an apple in one long, spiral peel. Throw the peel over your left shoulder. When you turn around, you will find the peel on the floor in the shape of a letter. It will be the first letter of the last name of your future husband/wife.

At my gathering, I served a strawberry shortcake for dessert. Ahead of time, I’d arranged to have a charm baked into the cake. According to Victorian Halloween custom, the guest who receives the slice of cake containing the charm (or ring) would meet the love of his or her life in the following year. (Alas, my poor friend Bill is still waiting.)

Bannatyne adds, “Young Victorians tried to bite of bags of candy hung by threads from chandeliers or doorways…They carved initials on pumpkins, blindfolded each other and tried to stick a pin in an initial to determine the name of their future mate. They set tiny walnut-shell candle boats afloat in a tub of water and predicted the course of their lives based on the movements of the fragile vessels.”

Evidence of the parlor games Victorians played can also be found on the Halloween postcards they mailed, as seen throughout this story.

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Vintage Halloween postcard showing a woman receiving a slice of cake with a ring in it, indicating that she will meet her future spouse in the coming year.

If you could step into a time machine and direct it to take you to Ocean Grove, New Jersey on October 31, 1900, you, too, could experience the mystery and matchmaking of a real Victorian Halloween party. It would be happening at 116 Heck Avenue, where super-hostess Miss E. Blanche Bennett was welcoming guests to her elaborate Halloween celebration. This girl was known for her parties, and she had this one planned to the utmost detail. She was probably inspired by women’s periodicals of the time like Godey’s Lady’s Magazine which recommended games, food, and décor for Halloween soirees.

No doubt she wanted to make a particularly good impression on that handsome devil Harry G. Shreve.

Miss Bennett’s Halloween party was a front-page story in the November 3, 1900 edition of the Ocean Grove Times newspaper. Her guests arrived in costume, dressed as phantoms, gypsies, Red Cross nurses, costermongers, fairies, and what the paper described as “sisters of charity”, “ladies of color” and “campaign paraders”. They all wore masks to heighten the sense of mystery, which were not removed until 9:00 p.m.

Let’s step inside, shall we?

Upon entering Miss Bennett’s living room, you are greeted by a recreated gypsy camp in one corner of the room. There, Miss Bennett’s good friend Miss Eugenia Pfeiffer is posing as a gypsy fortune teller, huddled beside a cooking pot that’s suspended over a “camp fire”.  The “gypsy” tells your fortune, and as it’s customary to pay for this privilege, you might be tempted to reach into your pocket for a coin. But Miss Pfeiffer gestures for you to stop. Instead, she has something for you. She reaches inside her cooking pot and pulls out a souvenir, which she extends to you. It is a doll-sized farm hoe, symbolic of the autumn harvest.

Next, the excited Miss Bennett gathers her guests together for games. She hands out little toy pipes filled with soap water, and challenges everyone to blow the biggest bubbles they can. “If your bubble floats in the air without breaking, you will enjoy good luck,” she explains, “but should your bubble burst before it’s loosened from the pipe, bad luck will follow you all the year.”

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Bobbing or “ducking” for apples on a vintage Halloween postcard.

There is bobbing for apples — that is, a large tub of water is brought into the living room on a rolling table, filled with floating apples. The challenge? To remove an apple from the tub without using your hands. Hilarity ensues as the guests hold their hands behind their backs as though tied, and clumsily attempt to catch a slippery apple between their teeth (and without drowning).

Once the apples have all been “caught” and enjoyed, Miss Bennett leaves the room and re-enters carrying a tray. On it sits a collection of what appear to be tiny boats. Upon closer inspection, you see that they’re made of walnut shell halves, with toothpicks and slips of paper for sails. Everyone gathers around Miss Bennett. She explains that each guest should take one boat and pencil the initials of their “lover” on its sail. “You will each take turns floating your craft in the water. If your little boat upsets when the water is agitated, you are doomed forever to single-blessedness.” Later she will laugh and say, “Notice how good at this game the married players seem to be!”

Throughout the evening’s gaming, you enjoy an endless supply of coffee, and sample freely from dishes of cheese, sandwiches, ginger wafers, salted peanuts, dates and fruit. The fruit is cleverly served up from inside the hollow half of a pumpkin, centered on the table.

What other games do you play with Miss Bennett and company this Halloween night in 1900? As the Ocean Grove Times reported, “The ladies also tested their fate by choosing, from a basin of water, a little package containing a slip of paper upon which was written a numbered question, the answer being read off by the gentlemen holding the corresponding number.” Ah, a little sanctioned flirtation! And, “At the conclusion of this diversion, the guests were given a lighted candle and invited to the dining-room, where beside each plate was found a card. The candles were placed on the table, and upon taking up a card and holding it over the candle a question test and answer were discernible.”

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This antique Halloween postcard references and old superstition that said if a woman eats an apple at midnight on Halloween and then looks into a mirror, she will see the reflection of her future husband in the glass.

And what party would be complete without music? Miss Bennett didn’t miss a trick or a treat. Miss Annie Orr and Mr. Henry Welsford sang “The Gypsy Maiden” (listen here). Three gentlemen — Dey, Wainwright and Wilgus — sang back-up for Miss Bennett for “The Mysterious Ideal”. (Did Blanche — that is, Miss Bennett — steal a special glance at Harry Shreve as she was singing? He couldn’t help but be impressed by her remarkably beautiful singing voice, which she inherited from her parents, both talented vocalists.) Additionally, as the newspaper article tells us, “Misses Hoffman, Pfeiffer and Sutton gave a character delineation of ‘The Witches’ Revel’ from Macbeth in such a realistic manner as to produce that ‘creepy’ sensation supposed to follow in the wake of all weird incantations.” (Watch a version here.)

Given the romantic nature of Halloween in 1900, it’s no surprise that Miss Bennett invited a mix of singles to her party, in addition to several married couples. There was ample opportunity for matchmaking, although some would inevitably go home disappointed. She invited eleven hopeful bachelorettes, but only five eligible bachelors — and she had an eye on one of them for herself.

Miss E. Blanche Bennett married Harry G. Shreve on February 19, 1902 at St. Paul’s M.E. Church in Ocean Grove. The wedding made the front page of the Ocean Grove Times of February 22, 1902, which called the bride and groom “two of the Grove’s most popular young people.”

You can go back in time in Ocean Grove whenever you like by using the Historical Society’s searchable database of local newspapers dating from the 1870s. Access it here, on the Society’s website, for free. Pull up the November 3, 1900 edition of the Ocean Grove Times to read the full story of Miss Bennett’s “Unique Hallowe’en Party”.

Jolly Halloween greetings from Ocean Grove, New Jersey!

– By Kim Brittingham

If you like this article, you’ll love our article about Victorian Seaside Souvenirs and Harry Houdini.

Funding has been provided by the New Jersey Historical Commission.