Gary Brown: Things got really strange on Halloween a century ago

Gary Brown

Here is a Halloween question of some historical significance.

Is it possible on the holiday for people to tell their futures in charred hazelnuts, half-eaten apples and randomly chosen heads of cabbage?

People once thought they could. And they believed they could get some insight into what was going to happen to them from wet shirt sleeves, too.

None of these customs are new. In fact, most of them were considered old when they were written about in The Repository in a Halloween feature published in October 1910. This was the weird stuff of their “old days.”

Old English

“(Halloween) was originally known as ‘Nut Crack’ night, a fact which probably is known only to a few persons,” the story said a century ago. I know I wasn’t aware.

“The origin of the name is lost in antiquity, but the old English custom of throwing nuts into the fire on the eve of All Saints Day, Nov. 1, to fortell the future probably accounts for some of the peculiar customs by which the day still is celebrated.”

A custom among young girls at the time, for example, was to eat an apple in front of a mirror, in hopes of “seeing her future lover peering over her shoulder.”

If that didn’t work, young women in Scotland might “hang a wet shirt sleeve before the fireplace and watch it while it dries, until at midnight, the apparition of the fair one’s (future) husband will come down the chimney to claim it.”

Even then, it seems, guys were begging for food and wanting women to do their laundry.

If the couple already was together, they could find out what was to happen to them in the future simply by going blindfolded to a field, picking a head of cabbage, and returning to take a good look at it in the light.

“According to whether it be big or small, soft or hard, whole or wormeaten, is the future foretold,” the 1910 newspaper article explained.

Apparently, many couples a century ago were doing real well together until they got their hands on some bad veggies.

More modern customs

But not everyone was celebrating Halloween the old-fashioned way. Some were satisfied to put aside weird customs in favor of more delinquent behavior — the kind of actions that might be more recognizable a century later.

“In contrast to the old-fashioned celebration of the day, when young people gathered around the fireside and told ghost stories and threw nuts into the fire to watch them crack and burn in order to learn their fortune,” the article noted, “the children of the present day celebrate it by throwing cabbage heads on the neighbors’ porches, run ‘tick-tacks’ over their windows, stick pins into doorbells and throw corn and acorns and anything else that will make a noise, on the window panes while they smear soft soap over the glass, upset garbage cans on the front porch, ‘swipe’ all the available detached outside belongings of a house and hoist them to the top of the telephone poles, hide them in trees, tie the doors shut with clotheslines and ever-so-many more similar ‘stunts’ which the active American boy mind can conjure up.”

One particularly popular Halloween activity 100 years ago was “the manufacture of as much noise as possible, and stamping and jumping on porches.”

“From years of such depredations, the night has been turned over to the youth, while the older folks hide themselves in the house and try not to appear to be at home, in order to avoid annoyance.”

And that’s how the Grinch stole Halloween.

Contact Gary Brown at