We’ve all encountered superstitions, myths and apocryphal tales, though I’m yet to be able to see in the dark despite a lifetime of eating carrots, and I don’t plan on consuming eight spiders a year in my sleep. Is there an element of truth in these statements, or is it all just a bit of fun?
It should be remembered that while some of these tales seem outdated and spurious under the modern lens, they were once a way of passing on information from one generation to the next, particularly amongst those who could not read or write and document their advice and tips.
Intrigued by these tales, we explored newspapers of years gone by to see how these British superstitions were reported over the decades.
Do carrots help you see in the dark?
The humble carrot. Versatile and delicious, no Sunday roast would be complete without it. But do they really boost your night vision? This was a widespread belief in the UK during WWII, when blackouts were enforced, and total darkness reigned at night. Carrots are rich in vitamin A, good for eye health and can help our eyes adjust in darkness. As the Blitz raged on, the Ministry of Food ran an advert in the Daily Telegraph in January 1941, claiming that carrots helped you see in the dark. Easy to grow and good for you, this is perhaps unsurprising given the food shortages resulting from the war and rationing.
Published at a similar time, The West Briton newspaper echoed this vision-boosting sentiment, encouraging readers to eat carrots several times a week. It also highlighted the fact that carrots are a ‘well-known beauty giver’, important in the days of rationing. Carrot face mask, anyone?
Wedding day rituals
We’ve heard of popular wedding traditions and superstitions, from wearing something blue to catching the bride’s bouquet. But what else is said to have brought luck or good fortune on the couple’s big day? Ever heard the one about the chimney sweep? According to British superstitions, it was good luck to see or kiss a chimney sweep on your wedding day. A chimney sweep is said to have saved the life of King George II (reigned 1727-1760), and they were thus deemed lucky.
When Lavender Grissell and Eric Campbell Russell tied the knot in 1938, the family chimney sweep attended the ceremony for luck. At a separate ceremony, Frances Margaret Metcalfe gave the traditional kiss to a sweep when she married in 1959. The Surrey Advertiser reported that the sweep, Mr. H Lawrence, returned home to change his clothes before attending the reception. Careful, don’t get any soot on that immaculate white wedding dress.
Do bread crusts make your hair curl?
‘Eat your crusts, they’ll make your hair curl.’ Who remembers hearing this as a child? It seems that for decades, children have been admonished for not eating their bread crusts. But it wasn’t just children who weren’t fans. During WWII, the Huddersfield Daily Examiner reported on a canteen worker who was astonished by the soldiers she fed, who always returned the crusts. When asked why, one soldier is reported as having said: “Oh, we scoop the soft pieces out of the middle and leave the crusts”. They were a bit late to the WWI campaign of ‘Eat Less Bread‘ for victory.
In 1950, the Daily Mirror cheekily suggested the crust option to a mother who wrote in asking for tips on how to curl her daughter’s hair.
On to nautical British superstitions. Apparently, it was lucky to touch a sailor’s collar. In 1938, The Somerset County Herald recounted a tale of sailors walking through the west-country town of Taunton being mobbed by people trying to touch them. It sounds like an early form of Beatlemania.
Remaining with our sea-faring friends, superstition also played a part in the launch of the Brunel-designed steamship, the Leviathan. Launched on Sunday, 31 January 1858, the vessel would have set sail on Friday, 29th, if it wasn’t for the sailor superstition that Fridays are unlucky. The Journal reported at the time that ‘the day was allowed to pass over without anything being done’ and that the owners would have been hard-pressed to find a crew willing to work on this ship. This superstition stems from the crucifixion of Jesus, which occurred on a Friday.
Is it bad luck to walk under a ladder?
The idea that walking under a ladder is bad luck still resonates today, with people manoeuvring around window cleaners hard at work or family members desperately reaching for that elusive Christmas decoration. Some suggest the shape of the ladder represented the gallows, while others believe the superstition has roots in Ancient Egypt.
The Lancaster Gazette agreed with the notion of bad luck resulting from the act but offered a more practical reason in their 1885 article on the subject:
‘People who walk under a ladder risk, first of all, getting well spotted with whatever materials the man on the ladder is using – paint, whitewash or paste, if the ladder belongs to a bill-poster.’
The Liverpool Echo regaled us in 1927 with British superstitions from days gone by, from turning back on your journey if a crow crossed your path to bowing seven times to the new moon.
The paper offers a semblance of balance when summing up the views of previous generations by stating:
‘Let us smile at our superstitions but not scoff at them. They teach us to remember the unforeseen faith that all our wisdom, our forethought, our safeguards and our philosophies cannot eliminate from this defenceless world.’
Nicely put. But do I really have to turn back on my journey if a crow crosses the path? I better let my colleagues at Newspapers.com™ know I’m going to be late for work again.