Leave it to the Victorians to celebrate Halloween in style. Their 19th-century aesthetic resulted in what we consider today to be strange societal quirks, from bizarre jobs (like leech collector) to fun slang (sad people “got the morbs”) to highly impractical fashion (toxic dyes and flammable fabrics were often the price of beauty).
So what did these over-the-top gigglemugs think of Halloween? Their architectural style, after all, lent itself well to our modern idea of a haunted house, mostly because the 20th century brought about a rejection of the opulent homes of the era. But Victorians weren't big on the creep factor. Instead, Halloween was a time to amp up their already irreverent behavior. Check out seven Halloween traditions from the Victorian spooky season.
1. Victorians liked to try and predict their marital status on Halloween.
When you think of Halloween, you think goblins and pumpkins. But in the Victorian era, revelers often turned their thoughts to walking down the aisle. Parlor games that were thought to have some insight into a person’s future were popular at the time. One such game involved a woman walking into a dark room, alone, and standing in front of a mirror. As they peeled an apple—try not to ask why that part was crucial—the woman might be able to see the reflection of the person they would someday marry. Alternately, they’d see a skeleton, in which case they’d die alone.
Another manner of speculation was to bake cakes containing a needle, thimble, dime, or ring. In addition to being an excellent way to choke or injure yourself, the cakes were believed to foretell marriage. A needle or thimble in your slice meant spinsterhood, since you’d apparently have plenty of time to sew; a dime or ring meant good fortune or wedding bells.
The Vics were also preoccupied with Halloween tea time, a social gathering with tea and snacks that could also be the setting for assessing their dating future. The women would use a teacup and suspend an empty spoon on the edge. Using a second spoon, they’d drip tea into the first spoon until it fell into the cup. Each drop corresponded with a year they’d have to wait before marriage. Again, this was before television.
2. Victorians liked to carve up turnips for Halloween.
Pumpkins were definitely a Halloween tradition, but they weren’t the only vegetable that the Victorians used around the holiday. Turnips (also called neeps) were a common resource for seasonal carving and even for making turnip lanterns. This could sometimes prove dangerous: In Scotland in 1899, a man angered a small army of children by refusing to accommodate their demands for candy. When he opened the door, a turnip hit him in the face, breaking his nose.
3. Victorians were handy with party invitations.
To be invited to a Halloween party was to be welcomed into a social event. Instead of just asking someone to attend, party organizers would sometimes leave carved pumpkins on the doorsteps of prospective guests. According to author Lesley Bannatyne, the jack-o'-lanterns were usually accompanied by handmade, written invitations complete with verse:
"Come at the witching hour of eight And let the fairies read your fate; Reveal to none this secret plot or woe—not luck—will be your lot!"
4. Victorians knew how to set a Halloween mood.
Once you arrived at a party, the atmosphere was lit—literally. Homes were usually completely dark, save for jack-o'-lanterns and fireplaces. Faux snakes made of tin were mounted over a heat source, which made them dance; party hosts were sometimes draped in black cloaks. If they stuck a hand out to greet a guest, it might be their real hand, or it might have been an old glove filled with sawdust to prompt what must have been the first historical jump scare.
These parties were sometimes themed to tie in with popular cultural figures of the time, like Cinderella, black cats, or Mother Goose characters. Seems like Halloween has always been commercialized.
5. Victorian Halloween costumes were modest.
When you're already dressed to the nines, it's hard to level up. Dressing up for Halloween became more prevalent in the 20th century, but Victorians still liked to go slightly incognito by customizing their normal apparel with bat wings, hats, and gothic-style accessorizing.
6. Spooky Victorian Halloween stories weren’t very spooky.
When it came time to print Halloween stories, newspapers and magazines weren’t terribly preoccupied with chilling anyone’s bones. Instead, most Halloween tales were concerned with romance, each one intended to capitalize on the preoccupation with love inherent in the season. Short stories like “Love’s Seed Time and Harvest” and “If I Were a Man, I’d Shoot Myself” were popular. While this would sometimes have an eerie element, like the protagonist exploring a scary chamber, it was usually in the service of finding love.
Not all stories were so innocuous. At parties, guests would sit around a fire and hold a burning twig. They had until the twig burned out to tell their favorite ghost story before the next person got a turn.
7. Queen Victoria really knew how to cut loose on Halloween.
Never one to let the potential for an opulent affair pass by, Halloween night with Queen Victoria was often a social event. At her part-time residence at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the Queen would arrange for incredibly lavish parties and traditions. One featured a procession with everyone carrying torches in the wake of the Queen’s carriage. A “shandry dann,” or witch effigy, was carried around by a servant dressed as a hobgoblin until the gathering made its way to a giant bonfire, where the witch was tossed in. This grim scene was often accompanied by bagpipes and later morphed into a pseudo-courtroom dynamic, with the “witch” a metaphor for the accused. (Naturally, she was always found guilty and tossed into the fire.)
Other years, the Queen might arrange for a “demon” to bear a resemblance to someone she disliked, like Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, whom she once dubbed “half-mad.” Then again, he wasn't the one throwing witches into bonfires.
The Queen sometimes received backlash for these displays, as it seemed unbecoming for a Christian Queen to indulge in such affairs. It was also sometimes possible for a large crowd of people wielding torches to get out of hand. In 1874, the Queen ceased festivities for the evening when she decided the partygoers were too raucous to let inside.