Happy Halloween!

As we manage a new normal for our Halloween, let’s see how our ancestors used to celebrate!

Like Christmas, Halloween as we know it today began in the 19th century. They were the masters of decoration and party planning! Much of our secular symbolism and traditions come from this era. Cute “spooky” images? Yep. Commercial holiday products? Of course. Magazine articles that make your own efforts pale in comparison? Food Network and Instagram have nothing on the Victorians!

In 1891, the American women’s magazine Ingall’s Home & Art published a very extensive article on how to celebrate Halloween in style. Included are a list of activities and games, plus a full menu for what appears to be the party of the season. Dancing, courtship games, fortune telling, tongue salad. This party had it all. 😄

Actually, times haven’t changed that much. The article implies a true hostess should hand-paint each hand-made invitation. To be fair, the overall theme of the magazine is art and decoration. But you can also imagine this being in a YouTube video on how to plan the perfect party. Maybe this is how I go viral?

The suggested design for the invitation. My art skills are not up to this challenge.


Before we dive into the menu, lets take a quick glance at the suggested activities:


Per the introduction, “Halloween dancing parties are much in vogue at present” and the use of dance cards–“a quaint device”–are still used in the country and in an unspecified “modified form” in the city. However, “dancing may be indulged in until the supper hour,” after which we move onto the food and the various games.

Proper: Spaghetti Arms. Improper: Hand on arm, other arm extended.
Johnny would not approve!

Bobbing for Apples

This is not quite what you would expect! First, it is for the gentlemen only. The game involves using your teeth to grab apples suspended from the ceiling on a rod hanging on a rope. For an added challenge, there are burning candles ready to drip hot wax on the player who doesn’t keep the rod straight! The man must attempt to secure the apple while avoiding tipping the candle enough to burn himself with wax.

Helpfully, we are reminded to protect our carpets from spilled wax. The author indicates, “This [game] is a decided improvement, in every way upon floating the apples in a tub of water, as the task of securing them is so damaging to both clothing and carpets.”

This party has both bobbing options!

The BBC Series Edwardian Farm recreated the candle version as part of their Halloween festivities. Peter for the win!

Romantic Divination

Fortune-telling activities at Halloween go back centuries and it is fun to see what was in vogue in the 1890s. The Cup of Fate, For Good or Ill, Fortune in the Meal Bag, Kaling, and the very traditional Roasting Chestnuts are given as possible options. The methods are different but all are meant to discover who you will–or won’t–marry. Would you like to partake in these games?

A version of Cup of Fate known as Three Bowls. Beware the Pumpkin Head!
A Chestnut Love Poem

Fairy Boats

More fire! The hostess (or more likely her housemaid) makes little candle boats out of walnut shell halves, including scenting them with lavender. During the party, each boat is marked with the initials of a guest. The little boats are then lit and set afloat in a tub of water. Next, the water is disturbed enough to create some motion of the boats. The fate of your boat reveals your own, from longevity to partnerships!

If you want to make your own little boat, check out these instructions.

My personal favorites are the dancing (though I fear my dance card would be empty once they saw me in action!) and the walnut shell fairy boats. It seems a tad dangerous by our standards but a lot more fun (and safe!) than bobbing for apples. Which are your favorites?

I wonder how Batman feels about this…

The Meal

The full spread, as recommended by the magazine:

This is not a low cost affair. It is meant for either a comfortably middle class home or to be an aspiration for the rest of us. The instructions state that this is for a “large dancing party.” They do recommend that for smaller parties or one where only games are played (no dancing), a simpler bill of fare would be appropriate. Dancing does build up the appetite.

While this menu is often shared in blog posts, what is left out are the associated recipes. One that really stands out is the Halloween or Dumb Cake (dumb at the time meant “can’t speak”, not a statement on the person’s intelligence). This is yet another divination option, using an elaborate method to bake a cake with special prizes inside. Most importantly, the entire process must be done in silence!

Supper was usually a late repast. This explains the heavy emphasis on dessert items. I would not be interested in tongue salad but I do embrace the three-cake concept!

Trying It At Home

One of the best ways we can connect with the past is through food. With Halloween here and most of my time and budget tied up in lockdown prepping (2020 is a seriously weird place), I opted to try out the Baked Apples, Browned and Glazed.

Yep. That’s it.

The original recipe was a bit vague. Alas, this is the way of historic recipes. Our ancestors were extraordinary: they either had deep foundational knowledge or were culinary adventurers! Thankfully, I am happy to channel my inner Townsends and did some research and experimenting.

This is what I ended up with:

4 Granny Smith Apples–peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2 in. slices
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp salted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. While the oven is heating up, peel, core, and cut the apples into 1/2 inch slices. Place them in a 2-quart cooking dish. Make a simple syrup with the water and sugar, over low heat, stirring frequently. Once the syrup is blended and heated through, turn off the heat and add the butter. Stir butter until melted and incorporated. Pour syrup over apples and stir to coat. Bake 30-40 minutes, until tender, stirring occasionally.

The Results

My original experiment used 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar with 1/4 cup butter. This was entirely too much liquid with the juice from the apples. I also baked them covered, which resulted in basically stewed apples instead of baked. The reduced syrup and no cover should balance everything out.

In the end, they are quite tasty and make a nice snack or condiment. The hardest part for me was not adding any cinnamon or other fall spices! But they didn’t really need them. The brown sugar and butter did the trick. As they often do. 😉

Which of the recipes would you like to make? Which would you absolutely leave out?

And would your late 19th-century ancestors been able to have such a lavish party? Or would they have had a more modest affair? Mine definitely would have thrown a smaller party on a farmer’s or miner’s budget. They would have also probably included some beer!

Thank you joining for me on this quick trip back to the 19th century. Please let me know below what you thought of the journey!

Happy Halloween!! Best wishes for a wonderful and safe holiday!

Image Credits

Merry Halloween Black Cat: 1909 Postcard, Ellen H. Clapsaddle artist. Found on Pinterest. Public Domain.
Party Invitation: Circa 1920s Party Invite. Found on SheWalksSoftly. Copyright unknown.
Three Bowls: “Halloween Greetings” postcard, Victorian. From article, “Browse These Spooky Vintage Cards“, last modified Nov. 2, 2018. Presented by The Kansas City Public Library. Public Domain.
Chestnut Poem:Halloween Postcard HIR 363-3 Bat Acorn People Fantasy Vintage” from Pinterest (based on expired ebay bid). Public Domain.

Dancing Instruction: Illustrations from Dancing and its relations to education and social life with a new method of instruction, including a complete guide to the cotillion (German) with 250 figures, by Allen Dodworth. 1900. Publisher: Harper & Brothers, New York. Library of Congress Music Division, Control #00002075. Pages 300-301. Public Domain.
Bobbing Party:Hallowe’en Festivities from an Old English Print” from the The Book of Hallowe’en, by Kelly, Ruth Edna. 1919. Publisher Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co. WikiCommons. Cropped and rotated for viewing. Public Domain.
Grewsome Halloween Owl: From the article, “The Witch’s Hour” from the Los Angeles [Sunday] herald. 24 Oct. 1909. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Public Domain.

Ingall’s Home & Art Magazine Clips: Ingall’s Home and Art Magazine. United States, J. F. Ingalls., October 1891. Available on Google Books, in the collection “Volume 4, November 1890-October 1891, pages 501-505. Public Domain.

Cooking photos ©Michelle Keel 2020

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *