Hallowe’en How-To: Tell The Future at Your Vintage Halloween Party

good fortune witch_card

One hundred years ago, Halloween was about…love? ❤


Maidens their fate may tell on this Hallowe’en.

Of him they love so well learn on this Hallowe’en.

Learn what his trade may be,

If he’ll be true to thee.

Maybe his face they’ll see, this mystic Hallowe’en.

Haste where candles burn, this mystic Hallowe’en.

Come, try thou every charm,

Bravely face each alarm.

Fair maid ne’er came to harm, on a mystic Hallowe’en.

–partial poem from The Complete Hallowe’en Book, circa 1915.1


Who will you marry, and when? What will be the occupation of your future spouse? Will you be rich or poorWill they remain faithful, or leave you for someone else? Or will you remain alone forever?

These were the kinds of questions that young people of the past spent Halloween night desperately trying to answer—and if any of you dear readers try some of these fortune-telling games tonight, you may learn your own romantic fate as well! 😉

halloween marriage girl

This 1910s or 1920s postcard indicates how much Halloween rituals were still about love and matchmaking. Photo source: cardcow.com



Instead of candy, costumes, ghosts and goblins, back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Halloween was really about one thing: love! ❤

Specifically, if you were a young person, it was about finding out who you were destined to marry. A short story by early romance writer Laura Jean Libbey from 1901, which appeared in the Chicago Tribune, captured this attitude towards Halloween rather well, particularly regarding young women:

“…Halloween, night of all nights, when goblin witches and all things uncanny step slowly forth, when the darkness of night gathers, and hold high revelry under the light of the moon, which hides her face now and then to laugh. Even the stars wink an eye, the waves dance, and the winds whistle gleefully to see the elves of the air flirting with audaciously with Cupid. This is love’s own night, the night maidens challenge Cupid, to find out if there is to be marriage for them within the next twelvemonth, or still another year of waiting for the hero who is to crown their hearts with love’s jeweled diadem and clasp their hands in wedded bliss. This is the night of all nights when youths and maidens take their fling of mirth and fun, just as their grandparents and grandmamas did when they were young, and eyes strive to peep into the mysteries of the future.”2

While it might seem odd today to think of Halloween as full of swooning lovers, this is less surprising when one takes into account the early history of Halloween in America, as well as its previous associations in Europe.

When Halloween arrived in the Colonies, it combined with earlier harvest traditions in ways that emphasized romantic fortune-telling above all else. For example, one popular Colonial tradition during fall was a “play party,” a non-denominational event for farming communities where people got together to have fun and enjoy the fruits of the harvest.3 Such gatherings were a rare opportunities for young folks from far-flung communities to look for a husband or wife. As a result, fortune-telling games like apple bobbing were a popular part of these festivities, where “whoever could snag an apple from a big bucket full of water, hands tied behind the back, would be wed soonest.”4

This association, however, really began in Europe. As Lisa Morton notes in Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, “marriage was probably the most important event in the life of a rural, pre-industrial young person,” and to that effect, many other earlier European holidays—like May Day—also involved fortune-telling games that could predict marriage.5 Over time, however, these traditions ended up migrating to Halloween. In Scotland, fortune-telling games were already a well-established part of the holiday by at least 1785, when the Scottish poet Robert Burns refers to a number of divination practices, such as burning nuts, throwing yarn and pulling kale in his poem “Hallowe’en.”6 The mystical divination aspect of Halloween, however, is even older than that. According to Lesley Bannatyne in Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, divination ultimately began as a “Celtic practice” thanks to Druids foretelling the future during Samhain using animal entrails and natural omens.7 Thus, many “quaint” Halloween divination practices involve the elements—fire, water, wind and earth—as well as common sources for them, such as hearth fires, running water, candles, wells, apples and nuts.8

Whatever their origins, in America, the Victorian age reinforced the holiday’s association with young lovers. In America, Halloween was deliberately “subdued, to be made safe for…adults and children” in keeping with ideals of middle class Victorian morality, especially regarding courting; romantic fortune-telling games were a fun way to tantalize young men and women while still keeping things relatively chaste.9 This attitude was reinforced by mass-market publications like Ladies Home Journal, where Halloween was turned into a holiday of “delicious mystery” that was “primarily known for its divination games.”10 Victorian dime novels particularly loved employing these games as plot devices, with many a heroine finding themselves eating “apples at midnight on Halloween while looking into a mirror for the face of a future husband” or following “balls of unwound yarn to dark barns and cellars” only to “fall helplessly into the arms of some gallant hero” who was destined to be their husband.11 A multitude of new “historic” divination games were invented during the Victorian age as well, as “old Halloween rites were given new twists and those twists spawned new games.”12

By the early 1900s, these party games were still going strong. This is very clear when one looks at Halloween postcards from the time period, many of which refer to or depict various fortune-telling activities. Take a look at these examples from Cardcow.com:

girl cat fortune postcard_snap apple

This little girl is playing a variant of “snap-apple,” another popular Halloween game that was similar to apple bobbing. Photo source: cardcow.com

Alll Hallow's Eve.

Another popular American game was turnip or cabbage pulls, where young couples would pull up vegetables from a field at midnight on Halloween to predict aspects of their future mate. This game comes from Ireland and Scotland, where the vegetable was usually a stalk of kale or cabbage stolen from a neighbor’s garden. Photo source: cardcow.com

Woman With Pumpkin And Candle Stares In Mirror To See Her Beau

This girl is performing a mirror test with a candle, another popular divination game—and the man to her left is doing his best to tip the scales in his favor. Photo source: cardcow.com

apple peel throw card

This card comes with instructions for how to perform the apple peel test, as well as your likely outcome (hope hers doesn’t involve the creepy man next to her!). Photo source: Cardcow.com


Divination games imported directly from Ireland and Scotland, such as the “three luggies,” or three bowls test, were also very popular. As David J. Skal notes in Death Makes a Holiday, “countless [post]cards [of the 1900s] show young women performing…a divination game involving three bowls, or ‘luggies,’ one empty, one containing clear water, and the last containing foul or soapy water, or simply dirt. A blindfolded player would approach the bowls and dip her fingers into one. The clear water represented a virginal mate, the cloudy water or dirt represented ‘damaged goods,’ and the empty bowl the barren fate of a spinster or bachelor”.13 This would be done three times in a row in order to determine the final outcome of the test.14

Such meanings, however, are subject to interpretation—as are the contents of each bowl, which has many different variations, each with a different meaning. Bannatyne, for instance, says the clouded water foretells widowhood, and she also offers a pioneer variant on the game, with bowls full of apples (standing for good luck, wealth, or love), nuts (no change in luck), or soot (sickness and loss of love).15 Hostess guides from the time period offer different interpretations as well. Dame Curtsey’s Book of Novel Entertainments for Every Day in the Year (1911), for example, says the bowls should be filled with water, milk, and nothing. If she touched water she will marry a bachelor, milk a widower, and if her hand comes up empty, she is “fated to remain single.”16 Another American version features bowls of earth, water, a ring, and a rag. The earth meant divorce, water a journey across the ocean, the ring a trip to the altar, and the rag no marriage at all.17

scotish luggie bowl card

A woman preparing to test her luck with the fateful luggie bowls. Source: cardcow.com

Interestingly, variations of the Three Luggies test were being performed as late as the 1940s in America. During WWII, a wartime version of this game consisted of blindfolded girls selecting one of seven bowls, each filled with a different item connected to the military: “red cloth…indicated they would marry an army man and a blue cloth, a sailor.”18 Another version had bowls “filled with red, white and blue-colored water and named for different branches of the armed services; thus a girl might discover the military affiliation of her future beloved.”19

Regardless of their origins, these fortune-telling games were enjoyed by Jazz Age party goers as well. For example Doris Blake, Chicago Tribune reporter, offered a long list of many of the games just mentioned—the same list she’d been offering, more or less, since 1910. This was because they livened up a party considerably in spite of their age. Even the Bogie Book, those ubiquitous party planning books of the 1920s, agrees: “although a few new and untried games may be interspersed on Hallowe’en, the old ones that have been handed down are the very life of the celebration and must never be omitted“.20 Besides, “no Hallowe’en party is considered a success unless all have bobbed for apples, each girl has walked down stairs backwards mirror in hand to catch a glimpse of her future husband, walnut shell boats have sailed in a tub of water, and apple parings flung over the left shoulder have formed a letter as they fall to the floor.”21

So, if you’re looking to add unique to your Halloween party this year, dear readers, why not get together with some of your friends at the Witching Hour and try your hands at some of these tests and games?



Apples and nuts, particularly chestnuts and walnuts, were popular divination tools during Halloween. While both were obviously “plentiful at harvest time,” there may be other reasons for their popularity as well.22U To this day, many sources cite the possibly fictional Roman festival of Pomona as another reason for this particular association. Considered the goddess of orchards, seeds and the harvest, Romans supposedly sacrificed apples and nuts to Pomona on November 1st, and this festival may have combined with Druidic Samhain rituals in England to “give later generations the charms and omens that come from nuts and apples which are made trial of at Hallowe’en.”23 Just as popular, nuts were also an important part of divination rituals. In Scotland and northern England, nut games were such an important part of the celebrations that the evening was known as “Nut Crack Night.”24

Whether or not ancient Rome was involved, however, these games are still pretty fun. So why not grab a few apples and try them yourself, dear readers…if you dare! 😉



apple paring test

Witch Dressed in Red With Flying Bats

Image source: Cardcow.com

As you peel your apple, there a number of rhymes you can recite as well. This one comes from John Gay’s 1714 poem The Shepard’s Week:

“I pare this pippin round and round again,

My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain;

I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head,

My sweetheart’s letter on the ground is read.”25

This one comes from Diane Arkin’s book Halloween: Romantic Art and Customs of Yesteryear:

By this magic paring I wish to discover,

The first letter of the name of my true lover.

Three times around with movement slow,

Then upon the floor lie low;

Show me, if you know the same,

The letter of my true love’s name.26

If no letter can be determined from the peeling, then it is assumed that the inquirer will not marry—however, a “bright girl” could usually make out any letter she chose, if she was clever enough, and thus use the test to her advantage.27



walnut boat test

walnut boat test pt 2



apple eat test 1920

There are quite a lot of variants on what the number of seeds mean, but here a few different interpretations from various poems:

One seed means “a journey,” “an enemy,” or “you’ll get a letter”

Two seeds mean wealth, “a new friend,” an early marriage, or “you’re going to break”

Three seeds mean true love, “your luck is going to mend,” a legacy, or “you’ll hear some good news”

Four seeds mean health, “a short sickness,” great wealth or “a ride you soon will take”

Five seeds mean a quarrel, “new clothes,” a sea voyage, or “you will be disappointed”

Six seeds mean “a pleasant journey,” “great fame as a orator or singer,” or “you’ll meet a friend”

Seven seeds mean marriage, “a lovers’ quarrel,” “possession of an item most desired,” or “a surprise”

Eight seeds mean “a new name,” “twice you’ll wed,” or “some money you will spend”

Nine seeds mean travel, “a long life before you’re dead,” or “there’s pleasure coming”

Ten seeds mean a ring, “you’ll be happy,” or “you’ll have something to wear”

Eleven seeds mean a fortune, “riches galore,” or “you will take a trip”

Twelve seeds mean four children, or “some good luck you will share”

Thirteen seeds mean honor, or “you’ll have a fright”

Fourteen seeds mean “a good name” or “your future days are bright”

Fifteen seeds mean “political fame.”28



Halloween Nuts

A visual sum-up of the nut test, where the actions of your nuts foretell your future relationship. Photo source: cardcow.com 

A popular old game that stretches back to at least the early 1700s, this test can be performed with either walnuts or chestnuts.

burning nuts better



Apple seeds, if applied to the face, can determine the steadfastness of your lover:

apple seed test 1920

For a variation on this game, you can recite this verse as you apply each seed:

“Pippin, pippin, I stick thee there

That thou is true thou mayest declare.”29



raisin test 1920



Suspend a series of apples from the ceiling with string or ribbon, tying the string to the stems. Blindfold all players and have them bite at the apples. The first who successfully bites an apple—something which is much harder than it looks—will “be the first to marry.”30

For a more daring variant, try this little number from the early 1900s. According to a 1907 edition of Harper’s Bazaar, this particular game was loads of fun, especially when “the candle flame brushed noses and chins in the sauciest manner”31:

“The apple and candle game is another favorite sport. From the ceiling a strong cord is suspended and is tied to the center of a stick about two feet long. To one end of this stick an apple is fastened; to the other end a lighted candle. The string is set in motion, and contestants try to catch the apple with their teeth [with hands bound behind their back]…[if you want to be safer,] instead of a candle, a bag of some thin material, filled with flour, may be substituted…three attempts to catch the fruit, with failure each time, is a fatal blow to all hopes of a speedy marriage.”32

apple bobbing trib

Apple bobbing was another fun pastime that could be used to predict future sweethearts. Either initials were carved into the back of the apples or small tags with names were attached to the stems. Whoever you drew from the bucket was destined to be your love. If done as a group, whoever got the first apple would marry within the year. If the apple was caught on the first attempt, then the lover was seen as true, while more slippery apples were seen as fickle lovers or no worth pursuit from the bobber.



Besides fruits and nuts, various everyday objects could also be turned into fortune-telling tools. Bowls, water, eggs, needles, candles, and plates all feature in these easy tests to help men and women find their true loves.



needle test



ring and goblet test



jump candle 1920



threading needle game


This test from Ireland was popular throughout the Midwest after it was brought over by Irish immigrants:

“Lie down on your back by a well on Halloween and hold a mirror over your head so that you can see a reflection of the bottom of the well. If you are to marry, the picture of your future marriage partner will appear in the mirror.”33



four saucers variant

1927 partiers with div tests

1920s party guests ready to play the Four Saucers game, a variant on the more traditional Luggie Bowls.



For this test, one needs a barn or cellar and a ball of yarn. The person throws the ball into the barn or down the cellar stairs so it unravels, all while holding onto the other end of the string. Then the person begins rolling it up until it catches on something. When it does, one is supposed to ask “Who holds?” Either the wind will whisper the name of your future spouse, or their spectre will appear behind you to wind up the ball.34

Alternatively, one could throw the ball of yarn and repeat one of these chants as they wound it up:

I wind, I wind, my true love to find

The color of his hair, the clothes he will wear

The day he is married to me.35


Whoever will my husband be

Come wind this ball behind of me.36



In Scotland, Ireland, and England, this test was done with kale, leeks, or cabbages. Romantics would go out hand in hand to pull vegetables from the garden at midnight while blindfolded; the attributes of the selected vegetable would determine aspects of your future mate. How easily or difficult the stalk was to pull indicated how easily your mate would be to win. After that, the shape and condition of the vegetable denoted various aspects: a full, green head symbolized an attractive mate, while a closed white stalk was old or stingy; dirt on the roots meant wealth while clean roots meant poverty; the flavor of the plant, whether sharp, sweet, or “insipid” foretold your mate’s disposition, and the shape, whether tall, stout, bold or graceful, denoted the mate’s “physical build.”37



rose test doris blake masquerade.jpeg



pumpkin alphabet doris pumpkin ghosts

bowl scrying image trib

A group gathers around for what is probably an egg white or molten lead test. During the test, hot lead or egg whites are poured into a bowl of cold water, and the shapes made by the material as it hardens are interpreted to determine the future.


halloween ring cake fortune

This 1910s postcard refers to another form of fortune cake: bake a wedding ring into a cake, and whoever gets the slice with the ring is destined to marry within the year. Photo source: cardcow.com


Halloween night, when the spirit world comes closer to ours than any other point in the year, is also supposed to be great for prophetic visions or dreams. In this section, mirrors, candles, cake and trinkets to put under your pillow are sure to induce visions of love…



There are a wide variety of mirror tests, many of which also involve candles. Here are a few:

Round and round, O stars so fair!

Ye travel, search out everywhere.

I pray you, sweet stars, now show to me,

This night, who my future husband will be!39

Whoever she meets or runs into while walking backwards will be her future husband.

  • Stand in front of a mirror at midnight in a candlelit room and eat an apple. If your lover loves you back, their spurt will appear in the mirror and ask for the last bite.40
  • Walk backwards down the cellar or basement stairs while holding a mirror. Behind you, in the glass, you should “catch the features of your [future] mate.”41


“Tightly pack a bowl with flour and insert a ring vertically into some part. When the bowl is full, invert it onto a plate and invite fortune-seekers to cut a thin slice from the mound using a sharp knife. The guest whose slice contains the ring will be the first to marry.”42



There were a wide variety of ways to induce dreams of your future spouse on Halloween night. Here are a few ideas:

  • Place bay leaves under your pillow at night if you’re a man, or rosemary if you’re a woman, and you will dream of your future lover.43
  • Remove the yolk from a hard boiled egg, fill the cavity with salt, and eat it before going to bed without drinking any water. You will dream that your future lover will bring you water.44
  • Make small pills of grated walnuts, hazelnuts, nutmeg, butter and sugar and eat them before bed, and you will learn your future husband’s occupation. If you dream of gold, he will be rich; of noise, he will be a tradesman; of thunderstorms, he will be a traveler.45
  • Rub each of your bedposts with a piece of lemon, and your lover should appear to you at night in a dream to bring you two lemons.46
  • Before going to bed on Halloween night, place a glass of water on your nightstand and add a sliver of wood to it while repeating this rhyme: “Husband mine that is to be, come tonight and rescue me.” During the night if you dream of falling from a bridge into a river, your future mate will come and rescue you in your dream.47
  • “Write the names of three sweethearts on slips of paper and put them beneath your pillow. If you dream of one of those named, you can be assured that person cares for you. If his is the name you draw out first in the morning, he will be the one you marry.”48

Walk out the front door backwards at the stroke of midnight on Halloween and pick three blades of grass. Wrap them in orange paper and tuck them under your pillow, thus ensuring whatever you dream that night will come true.49

pills for dreams bw illos

This recipe for “dream pills” comes from a 1915 Chicago Tribune article, but there are many variations.

Alternative interpretations for the dream pills are: pleasant dreams mean you’ll marry a gentleman, difficult dreams mean you’ll marry a laborer, and dreams of storms mean you’ll marry a ne’er-do-well or a rogue.50

future husband candle test

This young couple is performing a mirror test…which this fellow is obviously influencing to his advantage. Image source: Cardcow.com


Looking to add even more games and fortunes to your vintage Halloween party? Then try Halloween Happenings (1921) by Lettie Van Derveer. It’s full of even more fortune-telling games and tests and is suitable for any Roaring Twenties Halloween party, although most of the games require some assembly beforehand on the part of the host, particularly in writing out all the fortunes. Many of the games appear to have been invented for the sake of the book as well, so they’re definitely examples of period activities.

Another possibility is the “Games of Fate” section of Hallowe’en Festivities (1903) by Stanley Schell (1903). While this resource is technically older than the Roaring Twenties, many of the games I’ve listed here are described in it as well, plus many more.


So what about you, dear readers? Will you try any of these games tonight? If so, dear readers, I’d love to know what the fates foretold for you, so please come back and share in the Comments! And whatever you do this year, dear readers, I hope you have…

…a Happy Halloween! 😀

boy happy halloween


Works Cited Within Text:
1. Arkins, Diane C. Halloween: Romantic Art and Customs of Yesteryear. Gretna: Pelican Pub, 2000. 11.
2. Libbey, Laura Jean. “All Halloween is Love’s Own Eve.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 31, 1910. https://search.proquest.com/docview/173564143?accountid=3688.
3. Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween: An American Holiday, And American History. New York, NY: Facts on File, 1990. 53.
4. Bannatyne, Halloween, 56.
5. Morton, Lisa. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2012.  37.
6. Ibid.
7. Bannatyne, Halloween, 71.
8. Bannatyne, 72.
9. Bannatyne, 105.
10. Bannatyne, 107.
11. Bannatyne 114
12. Bannatyne,115.
13. Skal, David J. Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. New York : Bloomsbury, 2002. 39.
14. Paull, Marion. Creating Your Vintage Hallowe’en: The Folklore, Traditions, and Some Crafty Makes. New York, NY: CICO Books, 2014. 118.
15. Bannatyne, 57.
16. Glover, Ellye Howell, 1868-. “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Novel Entertainments for Every Day In the Year. 7th ed. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & co., 1911. 98.
17. Paull, Vintage Hallowe’en, 118.
18. Bannatyne, 131.
19. Morton, Trick or Treat, 65-66.
20. Dennison Manufacturing Company. The Bogie Book. 1922. 12.
21. Dennison Manufacturing Company. The Bogie Book. 1923. 35.
22. Bannatyne, 57.
23. Kelley, Ruth Edna. The Book of Hallowe’en. Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard co, 1919. 26.
24. Bannatyne, 57.
25. Morton, 55.
26. Arkins, 24.
27. Ibid.
28. Arkins, 27-29.
29. Bannatyne, 72.
30. Arkins, 22
31. Arkins, 23.
32. “SPELLS for ALL HALOWEEN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 26, 1902. https://search.proquest.com/docview/173111478?accountid=3688.
33. Bannatyne, 75.
34. Paull, 113.
35. Bannatyne, 75.
36. Bannatyne, 72.
37. Arkins, 41.
38. Kelley, 162.
39. Ibid.
40. Schell, Stanley. Hallowe’en Festivities. New York: Edgar S. Werner Pub. & Company, 1903. 52.
41. Blain, Mary E., 1872-. Games for All Occasions. Chicago: Brewer, Barse & co, 1909. 23.
42. Arkins, 61.
43. Paull, 117.
44. Ibid.
45. Ibid.
46. Arkins, 53.
47. Arkins, 54.
48. Ibid.
49. Ibid.
50. Arkins, 57.

Please note: The tests pictured in this post, as well as the black and white illustrations, are taken from the following Chicago Tribune articles, in no particular order:
Blake, Doris. “Love Superstitions for Hallowe’en.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 24, 1915. https://search.proquest.com/docview/173969438?accountid=3688.
Blake, Doris. “Hallowe’en Superstitions.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 22, 1922. https://search.proquest.com/docview/174950181?accountid=3688.
Blake, Doris. “Hallowe’en Lore.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Oct 28, 1928. https://search.proquest.com/docview/180954597?accountid=3688.
Blake, Doris. “HALLOW-E’EN LORE.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 24, 1920. https://search.proquest.com/docview/174749541?accountid=3688.
Blake, Doris. “Halloween Superstitions: They’re Not to be Taken Seriously, but They Provide a Lot of Fun for a Party.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Oct 30, 1927. https://search.proquest.com/docview/180814682?accountid=3688.




Posted in holiday post, list post, Social Customs of the 1920s | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Bit of Holiday Fun: Boozy Easter Eggs from 1932

“How much for the eggs?” John Huntley asked, eyeing the large display of Easter candy on the delicatessen’s counter.

He’d heard the stuff had been selling like hot cakes, and no one was sure why—but being a Prohibition agent, he figured he’d better check it out.

“Three and a quarter for a dozen,” the shopkeeper said, coming around from behind the counter to hover nearby.1

Huntley whistled, his eyebrows rising. “That much? Gee, I don’t know…”

The storekeeper pulled one of the eggs out of the box and handed it to him with a wink and a smile. “Why not try one first, eh? On the house.”

Huntley did—and he immediately bought the rest.

When he saw his fellow Prohibition agents the next day, he had a fine story to tell.

“Those eggs…were candy on the outside, but there’s enough liquor on the inside of half a dozen of them to start an ordinary drinker on a real spree.”2

When he and his fellow agents went back to raid the store, they found twenty boxes’ worth of the stuff in the basement.3 Both store owner Otto Fiebig and clerk John Oser were arrested, then later released on bail at $1000 each, with their trial set for March 23rd.4


On March 17th, 1932, Otto Fiebig and John Oser really were arrested for selling boozy Easter candy at their store at 4386 N. Elston Avenue. Here’s what their “Easter display” looked like:

Boozy eggs 1920s tribune

I was unable to find the results of their trial in the Tribune archives, but I figured this little blurb was entertaining in and of itself. I think these fellas were rather clever about selling their illegal hooch—and in such a tasty way, too. These treats would certainly be welcome at MY Easter table! 😀

Want to add your own alcoholic twist to Easter today? You could try making these whiskey-filled chocolate Easter bunnies or add a little Bourbon to them instead. If you want your booze-candy premade, however, you’ll have to stop by the United Kingdom, as apparently literally all the rest of it is made there. Sadness!

But whatever you eat and drink, I hope you all have a very happy…and maybe slightly hoppy…Easter. Enjoy the holiday, folks! Hooray for Spring.


naughty easter greetings.jpg

Enjoy this slightly naughty Easter greeting card that’s on sale at CardCow.Com


Works Cited:
  1. “DRY FINDS REAL KICK IN SEARCH FOR EASTER EGGS.” 1932.Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Mar 17, 9. https://search.proquest.com/docview/181321597?accountid=3688
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
Posted in bootlegging, holiday post | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

There Goes the Neighborhood: Al Capone’s House Has Finally Been Sold!

Al Capone’s House is officially off the market—

and for double the asking price!


al capone house_snow_gawkers

Potential buyers eye Al Capone’s former home at 7244 S. Prairie Avenue on the South Side. Photo Source: Chicago Sun Times


Well, dear readers, it finally happened! Al Capone’s family home at 7244 South Prairie Avenue, the travails of which I’ve posted about on numerous occasions, was officially sold on April 5th, 2019, to the tune of $206,000. That’s more than DOUBLE the asking price of $109,900 back in February—and in two months, no less! That’s a pretty terrific turnaround for a property that’s been struggling on and off the market since 2009, thanks in a large part to the notoriety of its former owner. According to the Chicago Sun Times, the price of the home steadily dropped “from about $450,000 to $179,000,” and it had gone into foreclosure more than once. Such prices are a far cry from the $15,000 Al paid for it back in 1923, when he bought it for his family to live in while he worked as Johnny Torrio’s right hand man downtown.

As you’ve seen in my previous posts, the 1905 home is pretty rundown inside, but one hopes that the new owners will keep a few of the more unique features—like the barred living room windows—around for the sake of history and flavor. However, given that it’s apparently been sold to “investors” rather than “end users” (i.e., homeowners), the future of Al’s former home is unclear. Real estate agent Ryan Smith of Re/Max said that the continued press on the property “helped it out” considerably, leading to over 80 offers and tons of interested phone calls. Smith says he has “no idea what the buyers want to do with it,” but that it “needs updating” if it’s to be livable.

Personally, I hope that whoever bought the place isn’t planning to tear it down. That fate might be in store for some lovely old Chicago mansions in the Lakeview neighborhood, however. Gorgeous homes akin to this one at 530 W. Hawthorne Place and this recently purchased location are getting quietly bought up by the Chicago City Day School, an expensive independent children’s school that is located within Lakeview.

According to a 2011 post at Connecting the Windy City, the Day School has a “track record…with destroying historic buildings” in the area, a feat which goes back to the 1996 destruction of an 101-year old coach house at 541 W. Hawthorne, which was done via a surprise permit issuance from a “high level building department official” in defiance of neighborhood residents, preservationists, and Mayor Richard J. Daley himself.1 The demolition came about from a loophole in the landmark preservation laws at the time, which apparently preserved the mansion but didn’t apply to the historic coach house, even though it was part of the same property. As a result, the school destroyed it, and then went on to file an “economic hardship claim” that same year for a different property, stating that “keeping the structure [viable] would cause economic hardship” for the school.2 It’s very likely, then, that they are planning a similar fate for more nearby historic properties. According to a discussion in a local Chicago history Facebook group, its likely that they’ll wait to do so until the historic designation expires in 2053, then move to bulldoze it after it’s fallen into disrepair. While I hope they turn these homes into school buildings rather than parking lots, it seems unlikely.

Al’s place doesn’t have a leg to stand on in that regard, however. The 1989, Capone’s Prairie Avenue home was up for consideration by the National Register of Historic Places, after being roundly rejected by Illinois’ historic site boards. The move was loudly protested by the Italian-American community across the nation. They were “fed up with being associated with Capone,” found Al’s conduct shameful, and did not want to experience the “guilt by association” that the potential certification of his home could bring to their ethnic group in the city and beyond.3 In response to the outrage, the bid flopped, and Al’s former home went back into private hands.4

Regardless of the building’s history, I hope they decide to do something worthwhile with it, rather than just bring out the bulldozer. Chicago’s historic buildings have enough challenges to deal with as it is, and while Al’s place isn’t an official landmark, it’s still an important part of the city’s history. It would be a real shame to see it go.


  1. DRELL, ADRIENNE. “Coach House Torn Down Despite Mayor’s Order,” Chicago Sun-Times, March 08, 1996: 4, accessed April 14, 2019, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EB42294DA76059D?p=NewsBank.
  2. BEY, LEE. “School presses fight to demolish mansion,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 13, 1996: 12, accessed April 14, 2019, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EB422AAE0685A64?p=NewsBank.
  3. Kamin, Blair. “Capone House Landmark Status Fought.” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current),Apr 14, 1989. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1015808219?accountid=3688.
  4. Helmer, Bill. “Consider Capone Part of Chicago.” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current),Aug 12, 1989. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1018709267?accountid=3688.
Posted in Al Capone | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Ghosts, Gangsters, and Widows: An Interview With Sherilyn Decter, Author of INNOCENCE LOST, Book One of The Bootlegger Chronicles


     Hello Dear Readers! Today I’m very excited to bring you something new and different: an interview with author Sherilyn Decter!

    Decter’s marketing team over at MC Book Tours reached out to me to join her book tour, and I happily accepted. Her new novel, INNOCENCE LOST, which is the first book in The Bootlegger Chronicles,  just went on sale this month on Amazon. What’s it about, you ask? Well here’s the official summary of INNOCENCE LOST, which sounds like a ton of fun for anyone who likes mysteries, ghosts, gangsters, strong female protagonists, and the 1920s:

Innocence Lost 3D

In a city of bootleggers and crime, one woman must rely on a long-dead lawman to hunt down justice…

          Philadelphia, 1924. Maggie Barnes doesn’t have much left. After the death of her husband, she finds herself all alone to care for her young son and look after their rundown house. As if that weren’t bad enough, Prohibition has turned her neighborhood into a bootlegger’s playground. To keep the shoddy roof over their heads, she has no choice but to take on boarders with criminal ties…

          When her son’s friend disappears, Maggie suspects the worst. And local politicians and police don’t seem to have any interest in an investigation. With a child’s life on the line, Maggie takes the case and risks angering the enemy living right under her nose…

          Maggie’s one advantage may be her oldest tenant: the ghost of a Victorian-era cop. With his help, can she find justice in a lawless city?

          Innocence Lost is the first novel in the Bootleggers’ Chronicles, a series of historical fiction tales. If you like headstrong heroines, Prohibition-era criminal underworlds, and a touch of the paranormal, then you’ll love Sherilyn Decter’s gripping tale.



I’m also happy to note that INNOCENCE LOST is the first in a five book series, so there will be a lot more of Maggie to come—and even Al Capone makes an appearance. While I don’t usually review fiction on this blog, given the content of Decter’s novel, I thought you all might enjoy learning more about her research process and her interest in history—plus gangsters, of course! 😉

So, let’s get this interview started!


1)    What inspired you to set your novel during the Roaring Twenties?

      America was fundamentally transformed in those ten years. There was so much change going on—social, fashion, economic, transportation, communication, technological innovation. There’s energy in change—and energy is heat.

     I am fascinated by the changing role of women. You can see that surging independence in the clothes they wore, their venturing into unfamiliar territory like classrooms and offices. And getting the vote—huge!

      I’m also fascinated by the 1920s entrepreneurs—the bootleggers and gangsters. Mostly men from the wrong side of the tracks, limited formal education and yet they set up international distribution networks, managed fairly sophisticated vertical integration between manufacturing (moonshine) through distribution and sales. Usually facilitated by verbal contracts and enforced with the threat of violence. There were agreed upon sales territories, especially after the Atlantic City Conference in 1929 when the modern “Mob” was born.

      Finally, coming out of the Great War was a certain recklessness—live for today—inspired by the carnage on the battlefields. Whether it was the work of painters, writers, or musicians; creativity in the 1920s tended to have a fatalism and extreme innovation that makes it hard to look away.

      In terms of personal inspiration, I was sitting in a jazz bar listening to an old Billie Holliday song when I decided to actually try and write a book. This was a seminal moment for me. I was at a crossroads in my life and needed to start a new chapter—turns out literally. The music set the scene, and I started to think about those smoky speakeasies, glamorous flappers and dangerous gangsters in the 1920s. Before you know it, I was hooked. Many writers find a coffee shop that inspires them to write. For me, it was sitting in that jazz club every Sunday afternoon, sketching out ideas and chatting with curious patrons. And I mean, who doesn’t love a good gangster story?

2)    I love that there’s a supernatural element to your book, especially since it’s set during a decade which saw a massive resurgence in Spiritualism and interest in the occult. What made you decide to bring a ghost into your main character’s life, and what inspired his character?

    The main character in the Bootleggers’ Chronicles series is Maggie Barnes, a woman of her time who takes on the challenge of seeking justice for the murder of a young boy. In those days, women had very limited opportunities to acquire the skill set of an investigator, so she needed a mentor. It could have been a relative or a friendly cop. But I’ve always enjoyed reading paranormal, so I decided it would be a ghost.

    Many of the characters in my novels were real people—blending the factual characters with fictional characters and staying true to history. My ghost, Frank Geyer, was indeed a real Philadelphia police detective. He was famous for tracking down one of America’s first serial killers, H. H. Holmes. Netflix and Hulu are bringing The Devil in the White City with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s the story of H. H. Holmes and Frank Geyer. Through research, I discovered Frank, which then set the books in Philadelphia. More research dug up the villain, Mickey Duffy, King of the Bootleggers in Philadelphia, his wife Edith and nemesis Colonel Smedley Butler of the Philly police, business partners and fellow gangsters Boo-Boo Hoff and Max Hassel, and then I filled in the rest of the characters around them.

     The spiritualism that arose from the trauma of World War I certainly influenced Frank’s character, although it takes a lot of convincing (which were great scenes to write) for Maggie to accept that he is indeed a ghost. His purpose for remaining in Philadelphia where the books are set drives the narrative of all five Bootlegger books and is the dramatic conclusion to the series.

3)    What research advice do you have for other fiction writers focusing on the 1920s, and are there any historical resources that you’d recommend?

      Thank goodness for the internet. I used newspaper and police archives extensively. I also read many—many—many reference books from the times and the area. Some great non-fiction books were always close at hand, including Bootleggers and Beer Barons of the Prohibition Era, Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940, and the transcripts of Philadelphia’s Grand Jury Investigation in August 1928 into bootlegging, racketeers, and police corruption.

      Because so many of the characters were actual people, I read lots of biographies and Wikipedia entries. J.D. Crighton’s books on Frank Geyer and H. H. Holmes were invaluable.

      Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods so I took great care in choosing which neighborhood Maggie would live in, and the descriptions of the streets and markets in the city. I wanted it to feel like the city was one of the characters. A couple of book clubs in Philadelphia were very helpful in beta reading the books to ensure that they sounded like someone who understood the city wrote them.

        I also reached out to various institutions and historical societies in Philadelphia who were extremely helpful in helping to answer specific questions I had. For example, Drexel University gave me copies of the business class brochures and other information for 1926 when Maggie goes back to school to become an accountant, as well as wonderful alumni photographs.

4)    This one’s just for fun: who’s your favorite historical underworld figure from Philadelphia, and why?

        It would have to be the villain of the Bootlegger series, Philadelphia’s King of the Bootleggers, Mickey Duffy. Mickey is a fascinating character and reading about him from contemporaneous newspaper stories and magazine articles helped fill in the background I needed. He was one of those self-made entrepreneurs I mentioned earlier. He understood that Prohibition regulated the supply but not the demand for liquor and stepped up to meet the need. He married a very feisty gal, established some ‘flexible’ business partnerships with other gangsters, corrupt politicians and law enforcement, and had a desperate yearning to be accepted into Philadelphia’s established business community. Like many of his colleagues, he was gunned down by rival gangsters. The streets of Philadelphia were lined with thousands of mourners during the funeral procession.

mickey duffy head

Bootlegger “King” Mickey Duffy. Photo Source: Temple University Library Digital Exhibits

         As a side note—and given the title and theme of your blog—Al Capone is a lurking character throughout the series and a business partner of Mickey’s. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is a significant part of the plot in the fourth book in the series, Watch Your Back, which will be released in May 2019.

And there you have it, folks: gangsters, bootleggers, Victorian ghosts, and young women coming into their own during the tumultuous Roaring Twenties…what more could you possibly want? I’m gonna go order my copy right now! 🙂



Want to learn more about Sherilyn and The Bootlegger Chronicles? Then you’re in luck! This post is part of a large virtual book tour for Sherilyn’s new book—and it’s a tour that my friend, Jazzfeathers, is also participating in! 😀

Decter gave Sara a a fascinating interview about her novels and research, and Sara posted an excerpt from INNOCENCE LOST on her blog The Old Shelter as well, in case you’d like to take a peek!

If you’re interested in learning more about INNOCENCE LOST and the upcoming books in Decter’s series, you can check out Decter’s author website, which features some fun history tidbits as well as information about The Bootlegger Chronicles.

If you’d like to see other posts in this virtual this book tour, you can visit MC Book Tours for the full list of participants. Happy reading, folks! 😀

Innocence Lost Banner


If you’d like to purchase INNOCENCE LOST, it is available to buy on Amazon.

The second book in the series, TASTING THE APPLE, is available to pre-order now as well.  


There’s one other exciting thing I almost forgot to include, too, folks—Sherilyn is giving away FREE BOOKS! 😀

Author Sherilyn Decter is giving away two autographed paperback copies of INNOCENCE LOST. Each of the books comes with a couple of sheets of flapper paper dolls! Just click HERE to be entered into the Rafflecopter contest. Best of luck to you!

paperdoll FB post (8)


Facebook Profile

Sherilyn Decter is enthralled with the flashing flappers and dangerous bootleggers from the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Through meticulous research, that lawless era is brought to life. Living in a century-old house, maybe the creaking pipes whisper stories in her ear.
To get the inside skinny on the Bootlegger’s Chronicles, you can reach Sherilyn at the following links:
Posted in author interview, blog tour, book reviews, bootlegging, guest post, interview, writing advice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

It’s Back, Folks! Al Capone’s House is Back on the Market, and Just in Time for Valentine’s Day <3

al capones house 2019

Capone’s old Chicago haunt, 7244 S. Prairie Avenue

Al Capone’s home is back on the market, and just in time for Valentine’s Day! So go buy it for your sweetie…or inflict it on your worst enemy. 😉


It’s baaaaack, folks! 😀 Al Capone’s house, which his extended family occupied from 1923 through 1931, is on the market again as of February 8th, for the low, low asking price of $109,900! This is a big change from back when I wrote about this in 2016, when the previous owner couldn’t get anyone to take a look at the place, and again later that year, when it was listed for $179,900.

Since then, it’s gone into foreclosure, and now it’s back on the market—but it’s looking a little different now. Check out these cool new pics of the interior:

al capone house 1

This interior shot seems to show a few sets of iron bars still on the windows, ones which Al had installed to help protect his family from his adversaries. Photo Source: Chicago Curbed


al capone house 2

Another interior shot, with some odd paneling painting. Photo Source: Chicago Curbed


al capone 5

This is a pretty cute little retro bathroom. Photo Source: Realtor.com listing


al capone house 3

That is one small old school kitchen, very 1950s. Love the old cabinets, though! Photo Source: Chicago Curbed


al capone house 4

A shot of the basement, which just might have a door that leads to a secret tunnel! 😀 Photo Source: Chicago Curbed

While it definitely needs some love, Al’s former home could be a really interesting buy for anyone with an interest in Chicago history (plus it’d make a really cool Air BnB listing, just saying 😉 ).

And unlike in 2016, it looks like this time the realtors aren’t shying away from those underworld connections. Here is one of the new listing write-ups from Realtor.com, which promotes the Al Capone connection rather than hiding it like the last few times around:

“This building is unique in many ways!! Truly a piece of Chicago history, this is one of the first homes Al Capone purchased in Chicago, not to mention it is also located on a wide 68 foot lot and features a very spacious layout in each unit! The building boasts character and charm throughout, hardwood floors in the entire building, tons of wood trim, wood molding, each unit offers large octagon style living rooms, full basement, rare all brick garage- This home is the multi unit you want to buy! Live in one unit, rent the other out, rent them both out and collect passive income, either way this is a win win for any buyer! the location is phenomenal as well, sandwiched between Skyway & Dan Ryan, walk to Red Line, close to Deneen Elementary and in the hear of sought after Park Manor! This is your chance to own Chicago history, do not let is escape you!”—Realtor.com listing for 7244 Prairie Ave.

Interestingly, one new thing I learned about the property this time around is that there’s supposedly a secret tunnel that connects the home’s basement and the garage, presumably so Al could get to his car without having to risk possible machine gun fire…and the realtors claim it’s probably true, though if the tunnel exists it’s been filled in with rubble by now. It seems there’s a door in the basement that has no key, and is locked, so….maybe? Who knows! 🙂


If you’re interested in buying Al’s old home, you can find the full listing here at Realtor.com. Otherwise you can contact Ryan Smith, the Re/Max agent who represents the property, directly at his office website.


What about you, Dear Readers? Would you want to live in Al’s old home, and why or why not? Please share in the Comments below!

Posted in Al Capone | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Learn About Preserving Lost Silent Films with the Smithsonian and Movies Silently


A still from Within Our Gates, one of the films discussed in Fritzi Kramer’s article for the Smithsonian.


Guys! One of my favorite bloggers was published by Smithsonian Magazine! 😀


This month, one of my favorite bloggers was published by Smithsonian Magazine’s website. Fritzi Kramer’s excellent article, Why We Need to Keep Searching for Lost Silent Filmsdiscusses the search for and preservation of silent films featuring Diplomatic Henry (1915), a film previously thought to be lost forever. Kramer herself is passionate about preserving silent films, which is no surprise given she was involved in releasing one herself! Using footage from the Library of Congress, she was able to recreate a 1917 “night at the movies” DVD, which contains the film Kidnapped (1917) and four other short films. Thanks to the magic of Kickstarter and Kramer’s efforts, these films are now available to modern audiences for the first time in 100 years. That’s pretty dang cool!
kidnapped cover

The cover to Kramer’s DVD set, which you can buy here on Amazon.

When not working to help save silent films from spontaneous combustion (not kidding) or collective cultural memory loss, Ms. Kramer is busy running her excellent blog, Movies Silently. If you’re a fan of silent films, you’ll enjoy this goldmine classic and obscure films, actors, actresses, and Silent Era trivia—and even if you’re not, I guarantee you’ll find something to enjoy. Kramer’s wit, sense of humor, and clear love of these films make her writing shine. Her film reviews alone are both entertaining and informative, and not just limited to silents; she covers “talkie” versions of silent films as well, and the comparisons are often very interesting. Personally, I find I can lose hours here just poking through her vast troves of content. Kramer doesn’t just focus on films, however. Here are a few of her other interesting recurring topics:

So if you’ve got the time, I’d definitely recommend checking out her blog. I promise you won’t be disappointed! 😀


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

C is for Cocktail: A Hot Drink to Warm Up Your Winter, Courtesy of Harry Craddock


harry craddock illo savoy cropped

An illustration of Mr. Craddock, from The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930)


In 1925 London, “hot cocktails” were all the rage thanks to Harry Craddock, that famous Savoy bartender, whom a pond-hopping Chicago Tribune reporter cited as “providing a hot cocktail for visitors from the cold outside world,” using “a new shaker” with “a hot water jacket that is replenished at regular intervals by an assistant.”1 Craddock was said to have had “three special mixtures” meant for his hot shaker, and his drinks were all the rage that winter, drawing folks to the Savoy to have a nice hot cocktail on a cold winter’s day.2

But what wonderful concoction was Craddock making, exactly? To find out, I turned once again to the gorgeous Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), Craddock’s masterwork of vintage cocktail recipes—and it turns out that, aside from the outlandish Ale Flip, the only drink served hot in the entire book was…



hot gin sling drink

Photo Source: EdibleDC

Dissolve 1 Teaspoon of Sugar in Water.

1 Glass Dry Gin.

1 Lump of Ice.

Serve in long tumbler and fill with water or soda; if served hot a little nutmeg [grated] on top. (Craddock, pg. 190)



When I first read Craddock’s recipe, I was rather surprised. To begin with, I’m not really a fan of gin, but…HOT gin?! That sounded even worse! :p

According to this Huffington Post article, however, hot gin is actually pretty great—especially if you don’t like gin. Once heated, “certain flavor compounds” in gin are suppressed, and the “botanical notes” come out more clearly, giving the drink a new “depth of flavor” that it otherwise lacks when cold.

Thanks to this “more spicy, floral, or fruity” kick, hot gin became a popular holiday drink in Britain during the 1700s, where it was a featured part of outdoor fairs on the frozen Thames. It was also a popular drink in Colonial America, where it was considered particularly “American” in nature and was related to flips, another hot alcoholic drink.

As a result, hot gin slings are common in many early cocktail guides prior to Craddock’s time. Technically, the drink can be served either hot or cold, as this recipe from Thomas Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them (1904) shows, but both varieties are present. Interestingly, some vintage recipes, like this one in Tim Daly’s Bartender’s Encyclopedia (1903), call for Holland gin instead—which technically isn’t gin at all, though it is flavored with juniper. One might also argue that they’re related to skins, which are cocktails made with hot water, a strong spirit like brandy, gin, or whiskey, and a twist of lemon. Some recipes, like this one from George Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks (1900), combine both by directing the bartender to “add a piece of lemon peel” and “grate a little nutmeg on top,” as for a Hot Brandy Sling, while swapping out the brandy for gin.

Whatever recipe you pick, however, it seems that hot gin has become increasingly popular in the past couple years, especially around Christmas time. According to Good Housekeeping, you can expect drinks featuring hot gin on winter menus this year, especially in the form of Gin Hot Toddies, an alternative to the classic Hot Toddy.

Want to add some hot gin to spice up your own drink this winter? If so, Huffington Post writer Nastasha Hinde recommends “heating it gradually in a saucepan” on the stove, “but make sure you don’t burn or boil it,” because too much heat will “easily weaken the alcohol content” if you’re not careful.

Have you ever had a sip of hot gin, dear readers? If so, did you like it or not? And what did it taste like to you—fruity, floral, or something else? Or maybe you’ve had one of its cousins, the Singapore Sling? If so, I’d love to know what you thought of it. Let me know in the Comments section below! 🙂


Works Cited (The Ones Without Hyperlinks):

1. Nancy, R. “Winter Tempered to London by Newest in Drinks–Hot Cocktail.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Dec 30, 1925. https://search.proquest.com/docview/180739888?accountid=3688.

2. Ibid.

Posted in 1920s fads, 1920s vintage recipes, C is for Cocktail series, drink recipes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Got 15 Minutes to Spare this New Year’s Eve? Then Why Not Save a Piece of History?

The Library of Congress needs YOUR help to transcribe over 28,000 thousand letters sent to President Abraham Lincoln by the end of TONIGHT. Why not take a moment today to help them reach their goal?



This gorgeous image of old-fashioned post office boxes comes from the Kansas City Local Blogger


On October 28th, 2018, Mental Floss put out a call: the Library of Congress needed help transcribing thousands of letters to Abraham Lincoln, all of which had been scanned into a massive online database that was now open to the public. Since then, over 28,000 pages in the Letters to Lincoln campaign have been transcribed by online volunteers, with the goal of getting the entire collection processed IN FULL by December 31st, 2018. If you’d like to help now, go to the Library of Congress’ Crowd site, hit the “Let’s Go!” button, and you’ll be sent immediately to a document that needs transcribing.

The first time I tried it, I got a letter about soldier recruitment in Albany that was addressed to William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State during the Civil War. The second time, I got an 1881 Christmas entry in Clara Barton’s diary. The third time, I got a letter from some presidential admirer who sent Lincoln a tub of butter to help him “regain his strength”—definitely the oddest in the bunch! All of them, however, were super fun to transcribe. 😀 Not only was it fun trying to decipher a bunch of crazily beautiful old-school cursive handwriting, but it was great to know that I was doing something that directly contributed to our larger understanding of history in a way that will benefit future generations—and you can do it, too!

Need some convincing first? Then read on! 🙂



This handwriting sample comes from the Nova Scotia Archives.




There are tons of reasons why squinting at crazy handwritten cursive is worth a bit of your time and effort. Here are a few of mine:

It brings the past to life: Personal documents like letters and diaries can be a powerful way to bring historical events to life, creating a feeling of connection to a distant past by making it more immediate and human. This can be a powerful teaching tool. Your history students might not care about, say, the Battle of Gettysburg—but they might care more if they had to spend a week transcribing a soldier’s letters home.

It makes more information accessible to computers—as well as future historians: Technology changes constantly, but right now computers are still awful at figuring out cursive handwriting, much less when it varies widely from person to person—but they can understand and catalog typed text, and historians of the future will certainly rely on such records. Transcribing these collections also helps to preserve them in another way, as data degrades a much slower rate than paper—and once that information is online, not only will it potentially live on forever, but people will be able to access it worldwide, increasing accessibility as well.

It helps institutions and universities with low manpower to better understand their collections: Thousands of historic documents that could take years or decades for a small group of professional staff to transcribe can be sorted within months or days once the public gets involved. And once that work is done, institutions can focus on the next big step—interpreting that data and fitting it into a larger historical context.

It will help you internalize period voice: For those of you who write historical fiction, what better way to internalize period-specific word choice, turns of phrase, and vocabulary than by transcribing actual historic documents from the time period you’re writing about?

It contributes directly to the preservation and understanding of history: If you have an interest in history, then why not jump at the chance to help do something directly to help preserve, understand, and add to our collective knowledge of the past—especially if it will only take a few minutes of your time?

So are you sold on this transcription thing yet, dear readers? No? Well, then, read on! 🙂




If you don’t find any of the earlier reasons compelling, then why not this one: old handwriting is beautiful in and of itself—and there’s even an entire field of study dedicated to it. Paleography is the study of ancient and historical handwriting, and as an art and a skill it is fascinating in its own right. It can also be quite challenging at times, but that’s also part of the fun, as you try to puzzle out what a particular word or letter might be.

For example, just because an old document is written in English doesn’t mean a native English speaker can instantly read and understand it. Not only did people’s handwriting vary from person to person—for example, one man’s “the” might look exactly like his “it’s,” I problem I ran into with the last letter I transcribed—but language changes over time. Being aware of abbreviations, notations, turns of phrase, and context can help a lot, particularly when you are having trouble identifying a word. While each of the projects I’ll be listing later has their own specific guidelines, here are a few general tips to keep in mind for any of them:

For most of human history, spelling wasn’t standardized, so something could be spelled phonetically in one document and not in another, and both would be considered “correct” for the time period. Even if you know something is spelled wrong, however, it’s important to mark it down exactly as written, using [sic] to indicate it wasn’t a mistake. These variations in spelling help linguists understand how words evolve and change over time.

Slow, careful reading, especially at the beginning of a new document, is necessary to try and decipher another person’s handwriting. Familiar words can be rendered quite strange when written in a different hand. Read carefully and slowly as you go at first and you’ll get faster as time goes on, especially if you’re working with documents written by the same person as you become used to the quirks of their handwriting.

Start with identifying individual letters, then go on to words. Since each individual writes differently, you need to be able to understand how they write particular letters before you can attempt to pick out words. Going through and comparing letters is essential. Someone whose writing of f, s, and j all look the same can lead to a lot of potential transcription mistakes if you haven’t taken the time to do this.

Context is important. Sometimes, there will be words you simply can’t read. Being able to read the rest of the sentence, however, can at least help you make a guess. If you do make a guess, it must be marked as such (each project will have a different way to do this), but there’s no shame in marking something as illegible to you, either—documents are reviewed by multiple people, so something you can’t read might be understandable to someone else.

Don’t stress about getting every single word—and don’t guess when you’re not sure. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you will end up with words you can’t decipher, and that’s okay. In that case, it’s better to mark a word as “[???]” than trying to put in your best guess. All the projects I will be linking you to are all peer reviewed, so someone will be double-checking your work later, and they might be able to figure out that word you missed. And even if they can’t, it’s better to err on the side of caution rather than make a potentially costly mistake.

If you want more tips on paleography, there are tons of great resources online. The National Archives of England has an online course for transcribing English historical documents, complete with practice pieces. This excellent 2014 transcription guide from the Natural History Museum has a ton of great information as well. Lone Star College has a nice guide to paleography too, particularly as it pertains to U.S. history—and there’s even a mini-game where you have to decipher old handwriting to save a woman from drowning. My poor woman drowned almost immediately, sadly. Hopefully you’ll have better luck than me! 😉





So, are you ready to try transcribing your first historical document? Yes? That’s wonderful, because there are TONS of people all over the internet that could really use your help! Here’s a list of sites to get you started:

~ American History ~

For anyone interested in contributing to the preservation of American history, there are tons of great options besides the Library of Congress. Try one of these:

Become a Citizen Archivist for the National Archives and Records Administration: Unfortunately, you MUST register to begin helping, but once you do, you have a choice  between a variety of different “Missions.” While there are too many to list here in full, some of the more interesting ones are soldier’s World War II diaries, litigation records from the landmark Radium Girls court case, and court documents related to the slave revolt on La Amistad.

Become a Digital Volunteer for the Smithsonian: If you think that variety is the spice of life, then this is the transcription job for you! The Smithsonian has more detailed instructions for their volunteers than others on this list, but they make up for it with a truly breathtaking array of projects. There are currently 19 active projects when I last counted, with new ones added regularly. That’s way too many for me to list here in full, but some interesting ones are a large amount of papers from early Native American ethnologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher, a Japanese solider’s WWII diary, and a lavishly illustrated French Artillery catalog from 1757—and that’s just within the Smithsonian archives! You can also search for more projects via one of their many partner institutions as well. With projects organized around themes like “Woman’s History,” “Arts & Design,” “Civil War Era,” “Biodiversity,” and more, you’ll be sure to find something you’d like to try! 🙂

Preserve Colonial History With the State of Virginia: Virginia’s State Library has recently opened its digital archives to public transcribers. Interesting topics include collections of Colonial era papers about the founding of the state of Virginia and African American slave narratives.

Help the U.S. War Department Sift Through Old War Records: The U.S. War Department has over 45,000 documents that need transcribing! Unfortunately, their transcription services will be down through 2019 due to a site redesign, but once it’s back up and running, they could really use the help. You can get a sneak peak at the new transcription layout here.

Transcribe Handwritten Recipes with The University of Iowa: The University offers lots of projects, including Civil War diaries and over 300 handwritten cookbooks from the Chef Louis Szathmary Culinary Collection.

Make Grandma Proud By Transcribing Old Census Records: If genealogy is more your thing, then you can contribute to the field directly by helping to transcribe over 4.2 million microfilms of historical documents from 110 different countries by working with FamilySearch.org, a free genealogy database that’s run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints. They’ve already processed over 1 billion documents since 2008, but they could always use more!

Help Stanford University Archives Document the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake: You might be surprised to know that Stanford University was also hit by the 1906 earthquake that destroyed a significant part of San Francisco and the Bay Area—and they have an entire historical collection to prove it. You can help transcribe it here, as well as metric tons of alumni papers, letters from WWI and WWII, and other material on student life.

Taste History With the New York Public Library: One particularly unique project is the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” collection, which features historic menus that need transcribing. You can even help them locate the sites of old restaurants on Google maps.

The Library of Congress is More Than Just Lincoln’s Letters: If you still want to help the Library of Congress but don’t care about Lincoln, there are other options as well. You could transcribe scouting reports from baseball legend Branch Rickey, personal diaries from nursing pioneer Clara Barton, “the Angel of the Battlefield,” penmanship contests for disabled Civil War veterans, and personal papers from Mary Church Terrell, one of the early founders of the NAACP.

~ International History ~

If you speak another language and are interested in topics beyond American history, you might want to try lending a hand to institutions in other countries, many of which have documents in other languages that need translating as well as transcribing. In this list, you will find European, English, and Australian projects on a wide variety of topics:

Examine British War Diaries: Operation War Diary is a wonderful place to start transcribing if you’re interested in the British side of World War I. Featuring documents from England’s National Archives, many of the unit diaries catalog troop movements and offer insights into preparing for battle and army life. There are also more technical documents like signals pads, reports, troop movements, and unit orders to transcribe. And if you don’t feel like trying to decipher whole pages, you can also “tag” pages for named soldiers, which helps with site indexing and future research.

Use European Languages to Puzzle Out WWI Documents: Do you know Italian, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Greek, Polish, or Romanian? Then Europeana wants YOU! Since 2016, Transcribathon: Europeana Transcribe 1914-1918 has been transcribing over 200,000 personal documents pertaining to WWI that come from all over Europe. Interestingly, Europeana hosts transcription events as well, the most recent one being held in Brussels as part of the WWI Centenary. Instead of focused collections, Europeana features live “runs” on particular topics, where they host online events in an attempt to completely transcribe a collection within a certain amount of time. One particularly fun one featured WWI love letters.

Contribute to Climate Change Science by Transcribing Arctic Weather Reports From the 1800s: Do you like weather? Then why not take a few minutes to transcribe naval weather observations from the 19th century over at Old Weather? Far from being a pointless exercise, transcribing this data adds to scientist’s climate change knowledge by cataloging what the average temperature in the Arctic USED to be like—which helps us figure out how much things have changed since then, and how they might change in the future.

Help Add Words to the Oxford English Dictionary—And Learn About Shakespeare: Believe it or not, there are still thousands of handwritten documents related to Shakespeare that have yet to be transcribed. Why not help the Folger Shakespeare Library, Oxford University, and the Oxford English Dictionary get a handle on their collection over at Shakespeare’s World. Not only will you get to learn about daily life in Elizabethan England, but you’ll also get to add NEW words to the Oxford English Dictionary! Many words and word variant spellings have been found in these letters which exist nowhere else—so not only will you be adding to our collective understanding of William Shakespeare, but to the English language as well!

Carve Out Your Own Space on the Jeremy Bentham Transcription Leaderboard: The University College of London is still looking for help in transcribing over 60,000 digitized manuscript folios of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who is considered to be the father of utilitarianism. Once you make an account at the Transcription Desk, you can start right away. There’s an entire transcribing community for this project as well, with a project blog, themed challenges, and a leaderboard if you’re feeling competitive 😉.

Sick of Europe? Try Canada!: If you’re sick of Europe and America, the Royal BC Museum in Canada could also use your help. Projects include WWI letters, diaries, and scrapbooks. The Nova Scotia Archives could use some help too.

~ You! ~

Lastly, do YOU need help deciphering old handwritten items, like your grandfather’s war diaries or family letters? Then why not start your OWN crowdsourcing transcription project? FromThePage is a piece of FREE open-source transcription software that’s been used by universities like Stanford to transcribe and preserve historic documents with the help of the public. Just download the program, scan in your documents, tell the internet about it, and watch the help roll on in! 🙂


Well there you have it, folks—-welcome to the glorious world of transcribing historical documents. I hope this list encourages you to give transcription a try, and maybe save a tiny piece of history for next year. And on that note…

May You All Have a Happy & Prosperous New Year! 😀



This awesome 1912 postcard is on sale over at CardCow.com.

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Convicts in the Kitchen: Rural Jails in 1920s and 1930s America

sheriff-wife_washing turnips

A sheriff’s wife washes turnip greens in her home sink, possibly only a few feet away from the local jail cell. Image Source: CrimeReads


Hello dear readers! Today, as a quick aside, I thought you all might enjoy this nifty true crime post which I ran across recently on one of my Facebook groups about 1920s history. This one comes from the folks over at CrimeReads, a “cultural website” that strives to bring you “the best writing from the worlds of crime, mystery, and thrillers,” with contributors ranging from mystery authors to publishers to librarians.

This particular post was written by Laurie Lowenstein, a new author whose debut mystery book, Death of a Rainmaker, comes out this month from Akashic Books. In the post, Lowenstein describes some of the historical research she did for her novel, which features a sheriff and his wife trying to solve a murder in a small Oklahoma town during the Dust Bowl in 193. As a result, she did a lot of research about rural police forces, and found something quite surprising and interesting: many rural jail cells in the 1920s and 1930s were actually part of the sherriff’s house!

One particularly memorable quote about this fact comes from a book called The Secret Life of the Lawman’s Wife by B. J. Alderman, which documented jail conditions in rural Michigan:

“The jail cells were behind the family quarters. Prisoners came in through the side door, went through the sheriff’s office and right into the cell area….the male prisoners were fed by lining up outside the kitchen door that had a 2 ½-by-2 ½-foot barred pass-through in the door between the family quarters and the cells.”

And the connections between a sheriff’s home and prisoners didn’t end there—his wife often had just as much a hand in dealing with the criminals as he did. In counties where funds and resources were scare, sheriff’s wives did everything from cooking meals and darning socks to booking prisoners and holding off angry lynch mobs with shotguns. As a result, jail time would have had an extremely different feel than, say, Chicago—and as Lowenstein points out, it offers a huge amount of dramatic conflict potential for anyone setting a piece of historical fiction in that time and place.

For more excellent bits of information about this topic, and to see examples of how Lowenstein worked these bits of history into her new book, check out the rest of Lowstein’s post over at CrimeReads—and be sure to check out the rest of their fascinating true crime material as well! 🙂

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C is for Cocktail: Celebrate the Savoy with a Classic 1920s Cocktail by Forgotten Bartender Ada Coleman

This July, the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar in London earned a slew of coveted cocktail awards at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans: Best International Bar Team, Best International Bar, and World’s Best Bar, an award they won last year as well, not to mention in 2016 and 2015.


bartender at Savoy American Bar London CNN travel

A bartender shakes it up at the Savoy bar in London. Source: CNN Travel


For those already familiar with the history of cocktails, such accolades will come as no surprise. Since it opened its doors in 1898, the Savoy American Bar has been churning out classic cocktails, thanks in no small part to its talented staff, many of whom have gone down in history as some of the best and most creative bartenders in the world—chief among them, of course, being Harry Craddock, one of the most important bartenders of the 20th century.


harry craddock tends bar

The legendary Harry Craddock pours a cocktail at the Savoy’s American Bar.     Photo Source: Alchetron


Born in Gloucestershire, Craddock immigrated to America in 1897, where he became a U.S. citizen while honing his bartending skills at places like New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel. When Prohibition hit, Harry fled for England—but not before supposedly mixing “the last legal cocktail in the United States.”1

It was the Savoy’s American Bar in London, however, where Craddock really took off. Attracted to his flashy American-style cocktails—and his novel accent—Craddock’s innovative drinks and personal flair drew huge crowds and turned the Savoy into an epicenter of cocktail creation. Known as the originator of the White Lady and the Corpse Reviver #2, Craddock claimed to have created over 240 drinks during his lifetime. However, he’s most famous today for a different creation: The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930).


abe books savoy cocktail book cover 1930

The original cover to the first edition of The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). You can buy a first edition today for around $500 here at Abe Books, too!


Created at the request of the Savoy Hotel, Craddock’s gorgeous Art Deco book features over 700 recipes and is still considered the gold standard of London’s bartenders—not to mention nearly everyone else. Craddock’s book is revered among cocktail afficionados, and not just for its recipes. As PUNCH notes, it’s also “a snapshot of an era,” with its “dry observations, art-deco cartoons, and ruminations on the culture of drinking” giving today’s readers a good idea of the time period in which it was made. If you’ve got the time, I’d definitely suggest either taking a peek at it here, or watch a video review here, or even purchase it on Amazon (it hasn’t been out of print since 1930, so it’s easy to get your own copy).


corpse reviver from savoy cocktail book pg 80

A sample illustration and a dash of wit from The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), page 80.


There’s another Savoy bartender, however, whose legacy has been lost in Craddock’s shadow—one that might have been put there deliberately by Craddock himself.

Ada Coleman, the Savoy’s first woman bartender and an inventor of famous cocktails in her own right, first started mixing drinks at the age of twenty four, when she joined the bar staff of Claridge’s Hotel in London. Talented, charismatic, and quick to learn the trade, Ada soon found more work at the Savoy’s American Bar, where she became head bartender in 1903.

Considered “an icon of her time,” Ada was beloved by her customers for her personality just as much as her drinks. Nicknamed “Coley” by her regulars and a devotee of musical theater (she even held musical entertainments in her home), Ada’s vivaciousness managed to charm the pants off her rich and famous customers, who included everyone from the Prince of Wales to Mark Twain. The Earl of Lonsdale wrote of her that “the kindness and energy displayed by Miss Coleman was marvelous and she was so nice…so kind and…full of life.” Customers flocked to her. As cocktail historian Ted Haigh notes in his excellent book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, “not only was…she…a woman in a world of male bartenders, it was she who made [the Savoy] famous.”2


ada coleman 1

Ada Coleman behind the bar of the Savoy. Source: Sipsmith


Yet, despite all her fame and skill, Ada may have been fired due to straight up misogyny—specifically that of Harry Craddock himself.

According to Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown’s 2013 book The Deans of Drink, Harry started actively campaigning against Ada as soon as he arrived at the Savoy for a variety of unsavory reasons. Freelance writer Keith Allison, writing for The Alcohol Professor, sums up Craddock’s campaign rather well:

“Craddock didn’t just think that he shouldn’t be subservient to a female bartender; he didn’t think women belonged behind a bar at all (a silly opinion given the fact that, since the earliest days of taverns, women played key roles as both drink makers and owners). According to Craddock, citing his experience in America as an American, his fellow countrymen would be put off by the presence of a woman behind the bar.

There is absolutely nothing in the career of Ada Coleman as the head bartender at the American Bar to back this up. She was, by all accounts, supremely popular and her skill as a bartender much praised by all for whom she mixed a drink, Americans included. But Craddock was a persuasive voice in the ear of the hotel’s management, convincing them that they would be better off with an American — and a man — in charge. By 1924, he had successfully forced Coleman and Burgess out of the American Bar. Fearing that such foul treatment of a beloved icon of the Savoy in particular and London in general would result in blowback, The Savoy convinced Ada to frame it as a retirement. In 1925, Harry Craddock was promoted to the position of head bartender at the American Bar. Ada Coleman was transferred.

To the hotel’s flower shop.” —Spies at the Savoy, Part Three

While this Daily Beast article offers other theories, and Wikipedia insists that she never worked at the Savoy’s flower shop, the fact is that she did leave, and with her went seemingly all of her fame. It didn’t help, either, that out of his 700 recipes in the Savoy Cocktail Book, Craddock only credits one of them to her by name: her signature drink, the Hanky Panky.

While today the term “hanky panky” conjures up some naughty fun, in England at the time it referred to “something closer to magic or witchcraft,” and it was in that spirit that Coleman invented the drink. She did so at the request of her friend, the famous actor Sir Charles Hawtrey, mentor to Noel Coward (NOT this Carry On guy, by the way). In a 1925 newspaper interview, Ada described the drink’s creation in detail:

“Charles…was one of the best judges of cocktails that I knew. Some years ago, when I was overworking, he used to come into the bar and say, ‘Coley, I am tired. Give me something with a bit of punch in it.’ It was for him that I spent hours experimenting until I had invented a new cocktail. The next time he came in, I told him I had a new drink for him. He sipped it, and, draining the glass, he said, ‘By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!’ and Hanky-Panky it has been called ever since.”3

A large part of the drink’s “punch” comes from the unusual addition of Fernet Branca, an Italian herbal liqueur with an “aggressive bite of menthol” and a “black-as-night and bitter-as-winter” cast to it that is “not for the faint of heart,” according to author Orr Shtuhl in An Illustrated Guide to Cocktails.4 But for those who can handle the fernet, it’s agreed that the Hanky Panky is worth it. Interested in trying it for yourself? Recipes for vintage and modern versions can be found below.



This vintage recipe comes from The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). As I said earlier, it is the only drink in the entire book which Craddock credits to Ada—a highly unlikely scenario, given the fact that she worked as head bartender there for twenty three years before him and was well-known for experimenting with her wares. I suppose we’re lucky, then, that he kept it in the book at all :p.

hanky panky with jiggers

A Hanky Panky cocktail with jiggers and a decorative orange peel. Source: Imbibe Magazine

2 Dashes Fernet Branca.

1/2 Italian Vermouth.

1/2 Dry Gin.

Shake well and strain into cocktail glass. Squeeze orange peel on top. (The Savoy Cocktail Book, 1930, page 80).



This modern-day version, which comes from Lesley Blume’s book Let’s Bring Back: the Cocktail Edition: A Compendium of Impish, Romantic, Amusing, and Occasionally Appalling Potations from Bygone Eras (2012), increases the vermouth and gin but otherwise doesn’t deviate much from the original recipe.

1 ounce Italian vermouth

1 ounce of dry gin

2 dashes fernet-branca

Ice cubes

1 orange peel twist for garnish

Shake with ice and strain over ice into a highball glass.

Garnish with an orange peel twist and serve with a spanking.5


These days, innovation at the Savoy American Bar continues, both in drinks and in bartenders. The current cocktail menu, called “Every Moment Tells a Story,” is inspired by photographs of iconic celebrities that have adorned the bar’s walls since the 1980s. As a result, it features cocktails created in honor of David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Mick Jagger, and many others.

Soon, however, the Savoy’s cocktails will be crafted by new hands. Respected master bartender Eric Lorincz, who was nominated last year at Tales of the Cocktail for International Bartender of the Year, stepped down in May of 2018 to make way for Maxim Schulte, a German-born rising star of the bartending world with experience in Asia and the Middle East. Regardless of who is at the helm, it will be fascinating to see what the Savoy American Bar comes up with next.


Works Cited:
  1. Nancy, R. “Winter Tempered to London by Newest in Drinks–Hot Cocktail.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Dec 30, 1925. https://search.proquest.com/docview/180739888?accountid=3688.
  2. Haigh, Ted. 2009. Vintage cocktails and forgotten spirits: from the alamagoozlum cocktail to the zombie and beyond : 100 rediscovered recipes and the stories behind them. Gloucester, Mass: Quarry Books. Page 160.
  3. Blume, Lesley M. M., and Grady McFerrin. 2012. Let’s bring back: the cocktail edition–a compendium of impish, romantic, amusing, and occasionally appalling potations from bygone eras. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. https://www.overdrive.com/search?q=78FBAEF9-3334-4C75-A963-8FCE5611E6C6. Page 83.
  4. Blume, Lesley M. M., and Grady McFerrin. 2012. Let’s bring back: the cocktail edition–a compendium of impish, romantic, amusing, and occasionally appalling potations from bygone eras. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. https://www.overdrive.com/search?q=78FBAEF9-3334-4C75-A963-8FCE5611E6C6. Page 117.
  5. Blume, Ibid.
Posted in 1920s vintage recipes, C is for Cocktail series, drink recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments