What’s going on here?
No, really. What’s happening in this card? Even if we spell it out, I don’t understand.
We’ve got a little girl dressed like a witch. We’ve also got a hollowed out pumpkin set on firewood (or what I assume will soon be firewood). In the pumpkin are envelopes, and she’s pulling one out with a stick.
So, what’s going on?
I assume this is a fortune-telling game. A good chunk of old Halloween cards show all kinds of love-divination games where you could find out who your future lover/spouse would be, but they usually use apples, mirrors, cabbage, nuts, or a lime-kiln. And all signs would point to this as part of the same tradition. After all, there are a ton of versions:
This one suggests that the game had something to do with wishes. Like maybe you wrote out a wish, stuck it in an envelope, and then a “witch” will come pick one? Maybe?
(Side note: see how it looks like this picture is totally stolen from the other one? That’s because it was. The card companies had no qualms about re-using images, re-copying them, or even stealing from other companies.)
We definitely get different versions, though. Even this fun little duo (and there must be more) where there’s a cat inside the pumpkin handing out the envelopes:
Let’s just ignore the cat’s weird gnome hat for the moment. It’s the “witch” creature here I want to focus on. Because she seems more like a fairy to me than a witch. You’ve got the star over her head, you’ve got the herbs and grasses she’s carrying. This is definitely something else.
And that weird fairy/witch/goddess thing leads me to the closest I’ve come to finding the game this might be pointing to. It’s from an 1895 book called How to Amuse Yourself and Others: The American Girls’ Handy Book by (sisters?) Lina Beard and Adelia B. Beard. The authors give a lot of suggestions for games to play on “All Hallow-Eve” or “Hallowe’en,” and one of the more complicated they call “The Fairy’s Gifts”:
The Fairy Godmother, in Mother Hubbard costume, carries a large basket under her cloak or shawl. She enters the room and announces that she has a certain number of gifts which she proposes to distribute among the company. After cautioning all that the contents must be kept secret, she passes to each person a folded paper. On one is written, “Wealth,” on another “Honor,” on the third “Fame,” etc., and some of the papers are left blank.
The iconography may not have been quite standardized for the costume. I mean, you’ve got a “Mother Hubbard” costume called a “Fairy Godmother” here. And there are images where witches have that kind of “Mother Hubbard” look: aprons and hair covering. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell what the difference is supposed to be – and you don’t have to be a deeply subtle feminist scholar to realize that something about old women living alone was both apparently dangerous and something to mock and minimize:
But in the game, the “fairy godmother” has a basket, and we can see how the basket could quickly become a pumpkin. And the rest of the game is a more open-ended take on a fortune-telling game. But unlike most of the Halloween games, this one isn’t about love or match-making, perhaps because this was a book aimed at proper young women:
Those whose papers contain the names of gifts are then blindfolded, preparatory to receiving their behests.
The first is led up and made to kneel before the Fairy Godmother, to whom she repeats these words:
”Most gracious Fairy, the gift you give
I shall treasure and keep as long as I live.”
Then the paper containing the name of the gift is handed the Fairy, who reads it aloud very solemnly: “Wealth” —and, turning to her basket, she takes from it a new dust-pan, to which is attached a ribbon-loop, at the same time reciting these lines:
“Your choice is bad when you intrust
Your happiness where moth and rust,
In time, turn all your wealth to dust.”
From a paper-bag the Fairy pours a small amount of dust over the kneeling girl, and hangs a dust-pan around her neck.
And… it goes on like that.
Now, that’s not a dead ringer, right? But that’s all I’ve got. Still plenty of other pictures of witches, sometimes in costumes that get closer to “fairy” or “mother hubbard” style. And mostly they fit a general gist of using a pumpkin for a witch’s cauldron.
But it’s those letters that still bug me. For it to show up as often as it does on cards from different companies, it had to be an easy-to-recognize motif. But so far, I can’t nail down anything more certain than the fortune game up above.
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