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.

Victorian Seaside Souvenirs & Harry Houdini

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souvenirYou come to the Jersey Shore on vacation and you buy a t-shirt to show where you’ve been. Or a hat. Or a refrigerator magnet. Or a Christmas tree ornament in the shape of a lifeguard stand on which is painted the words, “Ocean Grove”.

You can’t help yourself. And neither can millions of others. Seaside souvenir shops wouldn’t exist without willing customers, and believe it or not, they’ve existed for well over a century.

But where one might encounter somebody else’s souvenir at a garage sale or flea market and see “junk”, there still lingers some residue of love. Because when we buy a souvenir, something magical happens. We’re taking that particular brand of bliss that can only come from being on vacation and imprinting it onto that object. We’re endowing the object with fond memories, peak experiences, warm moments. It’s a funny little aspect of the human condition, isn’t it? With one quick transaction in a gift shop, we transform a low-value object into a treasure.

 

. There, you too can view a collection of quaint memorabilia from Ocean Grove’s past, some dating as far back as 1890, although souvenirs were being sold in Ocean Grove by at least 1871 (more info below).

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Change purse on a neck chain, made from shell. Souvenir from Ocean Grove, New Jersey.

I feel that sense of nostalgia every time I peer into the showcase of antique souvenirs inside the Museum of the Historical Society of Ocean Grove

When the original owners of these pieces held them in their hands, were they reminded of their carefree childhoods in short pants and sailor collars? Did an etched glass pitcher take them back to a boardwalk stroll with their first love? When they held this souvenir, could they almost smell the salty ocean air mixed with the lemon verbena cologne sprinkled on their handkerchief?

Collectors often gravitate toward antiques with a sense of romance, knowing these objects were used by people living in dramatically different times from our own. So, when you think about it, the meaning we assign to travel souvenirs makes them more romantic than a lot of other old things we might collect.

 

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Ruby flash glass souvenir pitcher etched for, “Mrs. Martha Smith, Ocean Grove, 1893”. From the collection of the Historical Society of Ocean Grove.

 

But just how “old” are we talking?

The idea of going to the shore and bringing home a memento most likely originated in England in the 1800s.

Strangely enough, although we’re about to talk about the 19th century, I’m reminded of a song by one of my favorite British bands from the 1980s, Squeeze. In “Pulling Mussels from a Shell,” vocalist Glenn Tilbrook sings about the holiday goings-on in a beach town, including this line: Two fat ladies window shop something for the mantelpiece.

It sounds like those two fat ladies were looking for a souvenir, much as their mothers and grandmothers probably did before them. And most likely, those early souvenirs were made of glazed porcelain.

The word “souvenir” is French. It means “to remember”.

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Collection of personalized ruby flash glassware, all souvenirs from Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Display from the Historical Society of Ocean Grove.

In a 2014 article for the Chichester Observer, U.K. journalist Sylvia Endacott reported that souvenir china was first made in the 1880s by Adolphus Goss, a traveler for the English china manufacturer WH Goss. His father, William Henry, was already manufacturing dishes and figurines, and it occurred to Adolphus that by “branding” a piece of china with a particular town’s crest, it might appeal to travelers.

Endacott writes, “The idea of these small pieces of china soon increased so that various shapes were developed, e.g. eggcups, shoes, animals, etc. Originally towns would have a shape that was specific to them. For Bognor (a seaside resort town on the south coast of England) this was to be the lobster pot; however this ‘one town, one shape’ limited the number of sales. The traders began to request a variety of shapes, with their own crests.”

However, I also found mention of a circa 1825 platter of Lake George, New York (made in England) in this article by Paul Post of The Saratogan, suggesting that souvenir china was being sold in the United States some sixty years before WH Goss.

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Miniature white porcelain pitcher. Souvenir from Ocean Grove, New Jersey. From the collection of the Historical Society of Ocean Grove.

In 19th century Ocean Grove, New Jersey, vacationers could attach their memories to a variety of souvenirs, from porcelain pieces like the miniature pitcher shown here, to mementos made from seashells, like the change purse on a neck chain shown above.

In Victorian Ocean Grove, most visitors bought their souvenirs from concession stands on the north end of the boardwalk, in what was then Ross Pavilion. In 1871, Joseph Ross was granted the right to sell concessions (including souvenirs) from the Ocean Grove boardwalk.

One of my favorite types of early OG souvenir is the ruby flash glassware. What makes these pieces extra-special? Personalization. And in my opinion, having a name attached to a souvenir takes its nostalgic value to a whole new level. It gives us a starting place for imagining who owned it.

 

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North end of the Ocean Grove boardwalk, circa 1880. In the foreground, notice the kiosk selling “Glassware”, “Named Engraved Free”. 

 

In their book Ocean Grove in Vintage Postcards, authors Wayne T. Bell and Christopher M. Flynn include a 19th century photo of Ross Pavilion, showing in the foreground one of the kiosks selling “Leather Novelties and Glassware” — and if you look closely, you’ll see that its sign advertises that engraving of the items was free. The authors say of the souvenir “flash glassware” that it was “usually a bright green or red color, was then engraved with the words ‘Ocean Grove’, the purchaser’s name, and the year it was engraved. Today, collectors pay extremely high prices for these cups, creamers, toothpick holders, pitchers and numerous other items marked ‘Ocean Grove’…”

Not that long ago, I spotted an auction on eBay for a ruby flash glass cup from Ocean Grove, etched with the name “Harry”. The seller claimed it had been made for Harry Houdini. Supposedly, Houdini’s mother bought it for him during a visit to Ocean Grove.

While I’ve been unable to track down any documentation proving that Houdini’s mother, Cecelia Weisz, ever vacationed in Ocean Grove, it’s not unlikely. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ocean Grove was a popular destination for New Yorkers like Mrs. Weisz. In fact, for many years during the summer, one could find Ocean Grove mentioned in the New York Times almost daily.

 

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Ruby flash glass cup, said to have been purchased for Harry Houdini by his mother, Cecilia Weisz, while visiting Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Photo used by permission of eBay seller.

 

Speaking of Harry Houdini, I initially thought perhaps his mother had learned of the delights of Ocean Grove through Harry’s former stage assistant, Dorothy Young. Young spent time in Ocean Grove during her childhood and returned in the 1990s, staying until her death in 2011 at the age of 103. However, Young served as Houdini’s assistant in the 1920s, and the “Harry” souvenir cup was etched in 1893. Houdini was born in 1874, so his visiting mother would have been buying the ruby glass cup for her adult son — which is not a far-fetched scenario, since it’s known that Mrs. Weisz doted on her daredevil son her entire life.

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Unusual souvenir spoon from Ocean Grove, New Jersey. The handle depicts a mosquito. In the 19th century, Ocean Grove was considered a desirable summer retreat because of its curious lack of mosquitoes. (The mosquitoes have long since found their way to OG.) Spoon from the collection of the Historical Society of Ocean Grove.

Not all antique souvenirs from Ocean Grove are locked up in the museum showcase at the Historical Society. They often pop up at the Giant Spring and Giant Fall Flea Markets held annually on Ocean Pathway in Ocean Grove, as well as in the Annual Antiques and Collectibles Auction organized by the Historical Society of Ocean Grove. And there’s almost always something up for grabs on eBay.

Do you own a souvenir from the early days of Ocean Grove? We’d love to hear about it! Please leave a comment below.

— By Kim Brittingham

If you like this article, you’ll love our article about Halloween in turn-of-the-century Ocean Grove.

Funding has been provided by the New Jersey Historical Commission.