Bite into Halloween postcards

No, this is not an article about vampires although, the new myth-expanding HBO series True Blood has generated curiosity. Instead, focus your attention on apples – commonplace apples – which appear frequently on antique Halloween postcards. These cards offer artistically pleasing designs often ornamented with apples. Postcard collectors a.k.a. deltiologists, revel in the varied images, vivid colors, and beautiful printing of these little paper showpieces. Embossing and gilding (or silvering) enhance their visual charm as do an abundance of witches, jack-o’-lanterns, black cats and ghoulish creatures. Postcards celebrating “Hallowe’en,” as it used to be spelled, depict an array of superstitious practices that otherwise may never have survived beyond their initial release.

In early 20th-century periodicals such as Woman’s Home Companion, The Delineator and Today’s Magazine, Halloween decorations, costumes and pastimes were avidly described. Postcards show partygoers and pranksters participating in apple-oriented amusements. These autumnal fruits were in the spotlight when tied with string and suspended from the ceiling, when combined with a lighted candle for a singe-worthy game of Snap Apple, when peeled to foretell a future mate and when plopped into water-filled tubs for a round of apple bobbing.

Originally known as “ducking” for apples, this game was believed to predict matters of the heart. By studying curled peels and checking for an initial carved into a hanging or floating fruit, merrymakers could pretend that apples contained powers of divination. Sometimes, a young lady might whisper the name she desired before bobbing started.

Apple-bobbing revelers were generally on their knees and not allowed to use their hands. Players individually went after the apples or as a couple or several together to form a sloppy, competitive, noisy “group bob.” And with the romance removed, apple bobbing has continued into modern times.

One of my favorite publishers for postcards that illustrate Halloween customs is the Stecher Lithograph Company that began in Rochester, N.Y. In the orange-bordered, six-card Series 63, card B shows two children with their faces (and the apples) hidden in this raised tub as a large black cat struts by beneath them. A short verse fills the upper-left corner: “Ducking apples in a tub, / The water’s wet – / Aye, there’s the rub.” Ah, shades of Shakespeare in apple-scented doggerel.

More than one version was issued for some of the Stecher series. This can be determined because the publisher used a variety of logos. My cards have “J.E.P.” above the tiny circle logo with a “C” and a dot inside; this was placed in the lower-left corner of the front. The initials are for the artist James E. Pitts, whose name appears on the opposite side. Another printing omitted the artist and changed the logo by abbreviating their name (“Stecher Lith Co. Roch N.Y.”) to surround the circled-and-dotted C.

Another Stecher series is more specific about “ … all the fun and merry jest, / To ‘bob for apples’ is the best.” Supported by a red cushion on “Hallowe’en Pleasures” (Series 226 B), a pretty little girl in pink daintily lifts an apple from a wooden washtub. On mine, postmarked 1913, “bob for apples” is enclosed within double quotation marks; another edition of this popular card lacks the first pair of quotation marks. Was a Stecher proofreader out sick when these were reprinted? At the end of September, a copy of this card sold on eBay for $12.49.

A Hallowe’en greeting with embossed bats, pumpkins, apples, purple blooms of thistle and a clock nearing midnight was issued by Gottschalk, Dreyfuss & Davis (Series 2516). Dressed in party finery, a couple kneels beside a green tub in which several apples float. This card is unusual because it shows an infrequent apple-nabbing technique. If you look closely, the gentleman holds a fork in his mouth. With that implement, he aims at an apple. It offers no clues to the effectiveness of this method or whether fork holes can be interpreted romantically.

“Halloween from the Apples’ Perspective” stars a grinning and rosy-cheeked young man who snatches an apple by the stem. The attraction of this modern Hallmark postcard comes from the humorous word balloons. Echoing from the galvanized washtub are such dire exclamations as “Quick! Rip out your stems! It’s our only hope!!” and “Bob for your lives!”

Not everyone bobs for the stem. This lad grasps the tub’s sides following his lunge at an apple that now fills his mouth. Water drips from his head after biting into the luscious flesh while jack-o’-lanterns admire his conquest. Printed in Germany by L& E (Leubrie and Elkus Company of New York) and postmarked in 1909, this postcard is part of Series 2231. It’s an unsigned H. B. Griggs (or HBG) about whom so little is known that even his or her gender remains a mystery. What makes HBG’s designs unique is the calligraphy.

This provocative lass leans on a tub as a couple of apples float nearby. The sepia-colored card extends her greeting, “To wish you good times & good luck at Hallowe’en.” Last month a copy of this card with even more cancellation marks on the front sold for $8.50 on eBay. I magnified the left side of the hoop that holds the tub’s staves together, and found a copyright date (1911) and the artist’s name (M. Farini). Alas, the publisher remains unidentified.

Bobbing for apples has so permeated the celebration of Halloween that a town in Scotland is going after the record for a group bob. At this year’s Halloween Festival in Peebles, south of Edinburgh, organizers are planning an apple-bobbing event that will not only devise a new Guinness entry but also establish the record. The event may attract as many as 500 participants. What a spectacle that will be, as hundreds of girls, boys, men and women try to seize apples with their pearly whites. Here’s to a grand turnout and please, make a clever postcard to commemorate that world record.

Jennifer Henderson has collected postcards for five decades. If you’d like to discuss Halloween postcards and their customs or any of these publishers, please email:

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