Halloween Party Traditions All Fun and Games

September 21, 2018

I rarely write about works that aren’t on view, but my research on this recent acquisition was so timely for Halloween. This delicate work on paper is by Marianna Sloan, younger sister of the realist painter and illustrator John Sloan. The drawing itself will need conservation before we can share it with our visitors.

Halloween Party, c.1895. Marianna Sloan (1875–1954). Watercolor on paper, composition: 7 5/8 × 5 3/4 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2018.

In the 1890s, Marianna was following her brother’s lead—studying art and making stylized drawings for the Philadelphia newspapers. In fact, just weeks before John Sloan officially decamped from the Philadelphia Inquirer to The Press in 1895, his sister designed a poster for the Women’s Edition of The Press, which hit newsstands on Thanksgiving Eve. Judging by style, Halloween Party dates from around the same time as the poster, so it may have been produced only a few weeks before.

I had no idea what the drawing represented when I first looked at it. There are no inscriptions hinting at the subject and the imagery, on first glance, is pretty strange. My first clue that this is a Halloween party was the tub in the lower right corner which seems to have two apples floating on the surface. I wasn’t convinced bobbing for apples was the sort of thing such elegantly dressed women from the 1890s would undertake, so I searched online to determine if this was common in 1895. I learned that apple bobbing and other apple-themed games actually have a long history as elements of autumn festivities.

An ancient game with ties to courtship, apple bobbing came into fashion as a Halloween party activity in the United States in the late 19th century. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (October 24, 1894) described apple bobbing as a one of the “old Scotch games peculiar to All-Halloween.” More frequently, young men and children played this game. The author suggested that it was “scarcely pleasant to young ladies.” Different types of apple-themed games were directed at young women, including the tradition of paring an apple into one long strip and tossing the peel over the left shoulder. The way the paring fell (to form a letter or letters) identified who the young woman would marry. This game might be familiar to some readers via John Sloan’s 1901 Halloween Puzzle for the Press. Another amusement encouraged young ladies to place apple seeds on their eyelids while saying the names of prospective suitors. The seed that stuck longest indicated who would be most faithful. Indeed, most of the Halloween games described in newspaper accounts revolved around courting. If you want to know more about 19th-century Halloween parties, check out this well-researched article on bust.com.

The women in the center of the drawing appear to be playing a game called The Three Luggies. After being spun around three times, the blindfolded woman would dip her hand into one of the bowls. If the bowl was filled with clear water, she would marry a bachelor. Milky water indicated a future marriage to a widower and an empty bowl predicted a single life. Even after reading dozens of articles on Halloween parties in the 1890s, the role of the people under the table in Sloan’s illustration remains unclear to me. Email us if know!

Surprisingly, Halloween parties were discussed in-depth by Philadelphia newspapers in the 1890s. In the days leading up to October 31, traditional games and foods were described for eager party planners, and the Halloween festivities were reported in great detail afterward. Costumes were not emphasized in these articles. This may explain why the women in Sloan’s drawing aren’t dressed for a masquerade. Although I didn’t find Halloween Party reproduced in The Press or the Inquirer in 1894 or 1895, Sloan may have created it as an illustration for one of these articles, or as a poster promoting newspaper coverage of such events.

The drawing is one of five by Marianna Sloan donated to the Delaware Art Museum by the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. The Hood has an excellent collection of John Sloan’s work thanks to his relative, John Sloan Dickey. Dickey was president of Dartmouth from 1945 to 1970. We are thrilled to add Halloween Party to our collection of over thirty works by Marianna Sloan.

Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art

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