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WHAT THEY SAY IN NEW ENGLAND
A BOOK OF SIGNS, SAYINGS, AND SUPERSTITIONS
AUTHOR OF "THE NEW ENGLAND COUNTRY"
"THE FARMER'S BOY" ETC.
LEE AND SHEPARD PUBLISHERS
10 MILK STREET
COPYRIGHT, 1896, BY LEE AND SHEPARD
C. J. PETERS & SON, TYPOGRAPHERS,
PRESSWORK BY ROCKWELL & CHURCHILL, BOSTON, U.S.A.
WHEN I began to collect these signs and sayings, it was with the idea of gathering them for my own entertainment. In days like the present of universal books and schools, I thought I could hope to get only a few remnants of the thought and notions that have descended to us from the illiterate and superstitious ages of the past; and I supposed that by the time I had picked up two or three scores of these oddities the subject would be exhausted as far as New England was concerned. But when I began to notice, I found that people in their every-day conversation were constantly dropping remarks on the significance of all sorts of things that were a part of this old folk-lore. When questioned, nearly every one, old and young, could repeat a few sayings of the kind I sought, and among these were almost always some I had not heard before. My collection grew until I saw the possibility of a volume, and I could not but wonder what the superstitions of the Dark Ages were like if these were only remnants. Not only was the number of sayings floating about astonishing, but it was remarkable how much belief there was in them.
Most New Englanders disclaim a belief in signs, — at least, they say a good share of them are all nonsense; yet a confidential acquaintance is apt to reveal some they accept. Most of the signs you hear from any particular person are repeated because they are simply curious, or because there may be some possible unperceived significance in them. I do not suppose any one believes them all, unless it is some imaginative small boy. It is the least thoughtful and least educated classes that have most belief in signs. Children accept them readily, just as they will accept anything told them about which they know nothing to the contrary. Some sayings add charm, some mystery, to the child's life; others frighten. The person who is not affected at all by these old sayings is the exception. A few of them, as, for instance, certain of those about the weather, have a scientific foundation; and I do not speak of those, but of such as seem to be entirely without sense. It is not always easy to decide which sayings have truth to back them and which only fancy. If you will listen to the relation of them, some of the most fantastic will be told with such detail and so stoutly championed that you are tempted to question if the days of miracles really are past. A man will tell you about horse-hairs turning into snakes; and you will hear of wart cures, and of the good or ill effect of one thing and another, — and all of the list "known" to be true, — till you begin to think that perhaps your own knowledge of the supernatural is very narrow and bigoted.
Perhaps no class is more addicted to sign-telling and belief in signs than those who have emigrated to this country in comparatively recent years. It is their children at the schools who are most apt to keep the rest posted as to what means what, and as to when things portend disaster.
I do not know that any of the signs gathered are natives of New England by right of invention. I suppose most can be traced to a foreign ancestry, just as they say all the old jokes can be traced back to Noah. Yet if Yankee cuteness did not share in the originating of them, it has given its peculiar local twist to a large number of them.
One man who has made a study of the subject affirms that superstition, in our most cultured communities, is so general that no woman in Massachusetts, for instance, would invite a party of thirteen to dine together. There are plenty of women who would not themselves object to being one of a dinner party of thirteen; but they would not call together such a number, because among the guests there would be sure to be some who would be disturbed. The statement seems to me too sweeping, though I think there is much truth in it; and I have known parties which happened to number thirteen where great pains were taken to procure an extra guest, or to have a part of those present eat at a side-table. It is certain that signs and sayings flourish in the society life of our towns. Indeed, you cannot tell with certainty who will believe them and who disbelieve; for there are still men of wise repute and high position who have superstitions that lead them to performances as odd as that of Dr. Johnson, who would always touch every post in a certain street when he passed through.
There are many believers in the significance of dreams, and they can give plenty of instances in their own experience and that of others to show a good foundation for their faith. I suppose this faith and apparent proof grow out of the fact that we remember odd coincidences, and forget the many times when we dreamed and nothing came of it.
The moon gets seriously given credit for a good many things too. Yet how its phases could affect the weather, or the crops, or the pork of the hogs that are killed, I do not understand, and probably no one does. I have read that the light of the moon will spoil fish exposed to it; but I am sure I do not see what there could be in moonlight to harm the fish or anything else.
Wart cures have a good many champions who have proved their virtues in their own persons; most people who try these cures believe in the last one they tried before the warts left them. It doesn't matter how ridiculous it was; if the warts went, that settles it. Even Lord Bacon, that "wisest of men," tells us at length of a queer performance he once went through to dispose of his warts; and though he did what he did as an unbeliever, when the warts disappeared he was constrained to credit the value and efficacy of this method of wart cure.
Luck and snakes and charms, and all the rest of the list, have believers as well as quoters. Least weight is perhaps attached to the sentimental sayings and to fortune-telling. Love signs are repeated and futures forecast usually for the humor of the thing, though I imagine there are persons who find even these oracular. Small children are much concerned over the way their buttons or the daisy petals count up; but as their fortune is different with different daisies or a change of clothes, they soon get over this. There is rarely any one in country regions who makes pretensions to fortune-telling, though wandering gypsies, when they pass through a district, are ready for a consideration to tell what one's life will be. I think few people believe in the powers these gypsies claim, but some say they tell things they themselves had no idea were so, or would be so, until afterward.
One might fancy, from the number of sayings and superstitions that can be readily picked up, that there was as yet no real folk-lore decadence. But you will find when you talk with people that they are very sure to speak of a father or a grandfather or grandmother, or some other relative, now passed away, whom you "ought to have seen — they had no end of signs, and they knew lots of old rhymes and songs, and believed in witches. They would be just the ones you're lookin' after." Signs are certainly not believed in as unquestioningly as they were once, nor are they in so common use. At the same time we lose them gradually, and the survivors will make up a large bulk in common use for a great while to come. Loss is most apparent when we get outside the short jingles and sayings of a sentence or two in length. There is now such a mass of reading, stories and songs, that people gather hastily and forget quickly. In more barren times many tales were handed down by word of mouth, and were remembered and repeated a life-time through. As for songs, now we have a new one that takes the popular fancy every six months. For half a year everybody is singing it, and after that nobody sings it. In the olden time the clever ones had a number of ditties and ballads in their heads that were indelibly memorized; and at an evening party, when they were called on for a song, they could sing the particular song they undertook clear through, even if it had twenty-nine verses. They could tell old fairy-tales too, and would scare themselves with witch stories. Now, of all this more elaborate lore, you can pick up only scattered fragments.
Nearly all of what is in this volume was gathered in western Massachusetts. It is largely put down in the language of the people who made the statements, and I have sometimes added their comments. With few exceptions, everything in the book came to me by word of mouth.
The chapter of Nursery Tales and some other chapters could have been much extended; but I did not care to repeat things found in other books, unless there was an interesting individuality in the telling that warranted it.
would be glad if New England readers who know of sayings and stories
not noted here would send such to me.
Postscript. This book is one of three New England books that I have written, each of which in its way supplements the others. The titles of the two other books are "The New England Country," a study of old times and of the out-of-doors nature of the present, and "A Book of Country Clouds and Sunshine," a study of life on our farms and in our rural villages. Both books are very fully illustrated.