There are many mysteries surrounding the traditional lore known as Old Wives’ Tales, not the least of which is determining what or who counts as old. Are these tales told by old wives? Or are they old tales told by wives of any vintage?
In any event, the Cincinnati Penny Press went through a great deal of trouble to collect a compendium of Old Wives’ Tales common in Cincinnati for its issues of October 11 and October 12 in 1859. These are, therefore, truly old tales, no matter who tells them. It is interesting that a few of these superstitions are still popular, if not actually believed, today. According to the Penny Press:
A child born on Christmas Day or during chime hours will be able to see spirits. (What constituted “chime hours” depended on where you lived. In the city of Cincinnati, the only chime hour was midnight. In some rural areas, chime hours followed the monastic overnight hours of vespers (sunset), midnight and matins (before dawn).
A May baby will always be sickly. You may try, but you will never rear it.
If you rock the cradle when the child is not in it, the child will die.
Children with much down upon their arms or hands are born to be rich.
If several children are baptized together, and the girls are taken to the font before the boys, the boys will have no beards when they are men.
If you wish well to your friend’s child, you must give it, when it first comes to your house, a cake, a little salt, and an egg.
When a child has the thrush (a fungus infection), catch a duck and hold the bill wide open in the child’s mouth. The cold breath of the duck will cause the disease to slowly and surely depart.
Whooping cough will never be taken by a child that has ridden upon a bear. When bear-baiting was in fashion, this belief yielded part of the income of the bear’s owner.
If you eat an egg, you must finish by making a hole in the shell, or the witches will sail out in it to wreck ships. And, considering the price of eggs, do not burn egg shells because, if you do, the hens will cease to lay.
If you meet a white horse, you must spit at it.
If your keys or your penknife or any steel thing that you have will rust despite your care, you may be certain that someone is laying money aside for you.
Seven years’ trouble is the sentence pronounced upon you if you break a looking glass.
Itching is prophetic: If your left palm itches, money goes out. If your right palm itches, money comes in. If your knee itches, you shall kneel in a strange church. If the sole of your foot itches, you shall walk over strange ground. If your elbow itches, you will sleep with a strange bedfellow. If your ear itches, you are to hear sudden news.
According to the Penny Press, your whole body is a sort of antenna: If you shiver or feel cold in the back, someone is walking over your future grave. If your cheeks burn, someone is spreading scandal about you. If you hear singing in your right ear, someone is praising you. If you hear singing in your left ear, someone is abusing your reputation. (You may put a stop to this by biting sharply into your little finger. By doing so, you bite his evil tongue.)
At church, take good heed of the preacher’s texts, because you will be called upon, on Judgement Day, to recite every text you heard in church while you were alive.
It is bad luck to kill a cricket because crickets bring good luck into a house, but they will eat holes in the stockings of anyone who had killed a cricket. Similarly, if you kill a beetle, it is sure to rain.
If you sneeze on Monday, your anger will hasten, but if you sneeze on Sunday morning while you are fasting, you will enjoy your own true love everlasting.
To dream about who this true love shall be, you should, before going to bed, stick nine pins into the blade bone (scapula) of a rabbit and place it under your pillow.
Courtship was apparently very different in 1859. The Penny Press claimed that the luckiest gift a man could present to his sweetheart was the first egg laid by a pullet. It was considered bad luck for a man to go courting on a Friday. Anyone witnessing such malfeasance was required to chase the man home with poker, tongs and tin metal music.
A maiden who desires to know which of her suitors really cares for her should name each as she throws an apple pip into the fire. If the pip pops, the love is hearty.
A girl shelling peas who finds a peascod with nine peas in it must lay that peascod on the threshold of the kitchen door. The first bachelor who crosses that doorway will love her.
Be sure, when you get married, not to enter the church by one door and leave by another.
Whoever falls asleep first on the wedding night will be the first to die.
Harbingers of death were multitudinous: A bumble bee entering a house was a sign of death, as was the crowing of a hen, as was a mouse squeaking behind the bed of a sick person, as was a cow breaking into the family garden, as was a wild pigeon suddenly becoming tame.
If the door of a hearse is closed before all of the mourners are in their coaches, there will be another death in the family.
On the other hand, it was said that no one can die on a bed stuffed with game bird feathers. The story goes that an old man suffered painfully for months until a neighbor announced he must be lying on game feathers. They pulled the old fellow onto the floor and he died immediately. Or, at least, that’s how the tale goes.
If those sorts of omens bother you, the Cincinnati Penny Press offered a spell you could recite to ward away all sorts of evil:
“From witches and wizards and long-tailed buzzards and creeping things that run in hedge-bottoms, Good Lord deliver us!”