Thursday, 23 June 2016

What you can learn from a new moon

Last week’s #FolkloreThursday took me back to a comparative annotation assignment on my MA in Folklore at the late lamented NATCECT, University of Sheffield. Each student chose random items of collectanea from the NATCECT archives and/or from our own fieldwork collections, classified them, and offered an appraisal of comparative material from other folklore collections.

My heart soared, then, when Marianna Villanueva @mariannevill714 asked ‘what does a crescent moon mean?’ and @madebyfae replied ‘Bow 3 times to the crescent moon with money in your pocket & you'll have riches all month’, as this was one of the items I had researched. Below I have copied the assignment as originally submitted, with one addition. This assignment was designed to familiarise students with research in folklore collections and ways of thinking about items of collectanea. When I had completed the assignment a happy accident of conversation taught me a little bit more about fieldwork and terminology.

I had selected the following item from the NATCECT files: 
It is bad luck to look at a new moon through glass. When one does see a new moon for the first time, one should turn one’s money over in the pocket and wish. 
This was collected by C.V. Ibbotson in ‘1945 approx’ from Mrs A. Ibbotson, aged 90, of Millhouses, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. Mr Ibbotson notes that Mrs Ibbotson ‘really believed’ this, which she had learnt from her mother in Sheffield.

Classification: This is an item of Customary Tradition – Traditional Belief (beliefs concerning cosmic phenomena and the weather). Under Mrs V.M. Halpert’s classification of Folk Belief and Custom, this falls into category K: Weather and Cosmic Phenomena.


This is one of the most widely documented items of customary belief in the British Isles, both geographically and historically. Virtually every regional collection of folklore published in the last 150 years contains some reference to it, and it is not confined to any one language group within the British Isles. (It is documented among Welsh-speakers, and it is recorded among communities where previously Scots Gaelic and Guernsey-French had been the first language). It is also recorded in the USA.

A few examples will suffice:

‘[the new moon] should never be first seen through glass’ (Jacqueline Simpson, The Folklore of Sussex (London: Batsford, 1973), p.101);

‘It is unlucky to see the new moon through glass for the first time; you should … turn your money in your pocket’ (In the Troublesome Times: Memories of Old Northumberland, ed. Rosalie E. Bosanquet ([n.p]: Northumberland Press, 1929; repr. Spredden Press, 1989), p. 79);

‘An elderly Cambridge man recalled in 1958 that when he used to stay with his grandmother in Ely when he was a boy, he remembers being told by her to stand by the open kitchen door to warn her of the appearance of a new moon so that she could … see it from the doorstep and not through a window’ (Enid Porter, Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969), p. 59);

‘The widespread customs of bowing to the new moon and turning the money in one’s pocket are observed in the Highlands [of Scotland]’ (I.F. Grant, Highland Folk Ways (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 355);

‘It is considered unlucky to see the new moon the first time through the window’ (Jonathan Caredig Davies, Folk-Lore of West and Mid-Wales (Aberystwyth: [] 1911; repr. Felinfach: Llanerch, 1992), p. 219; and

‘You should never look at the new moon through glass … You must … rattle the money in your pocket’ (Marie de Garis, Folklore of Guernsey ([St Pierre du Bois, Guernsey?]: the author, 1975), pp. 102-3).

Many more examples could be adduced (it features in most of the Folklore Society’s County Folklore Printed Extract series, published in the first decade of the twentieth century, for example, and also in most volumes of the Batsford county folklore series published in the 1970s), but these should be sufficient to disprove William Henderson’s idea that this was ‘a Durham superstition’ (William Henderson, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (London: Satchell, Peyton, 1879)).

Opie and Tatem give the earliest record for not looking at the new moon through glass as 1830 (Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 282), and for turning money over as 1808 (Opie and Tatem, p. 279), but both are related to other beliefs. A belief that it is unlucky to see the new moon through trees (emphasising the aspect of a distorted vision) is also widely reported, as is divination by looking at the new moon through a silk handkerchief.

Bad luck incurred through seeing a new moon through trees can also be counteracted by customs involving money, for example spitting on both sides of a coin (quoted in Opie and Tatem, p. 283). The turning over of money is related to an earlier recorded belief that it was unlucky to see the new moon without any money in your pocket. Opie and Tatem record instances back to 1507 (Opie and Tatem, p. 279). The penalties for breaching these customs vary. For an 88-year-old Ohio woman recorded in 1958, it meant the likely death of one of your family, but in most instances it brings bad luck for the duration of that moon. You will continue to have no money if you have none when you see the new moon. (This is the substance of the 1507 reference). This is in turn related to the equally well-documented custom of greeting the new moon, again with the intention of securing good luck for the remainder of the lunar cycle.

As spectacle-wearing has become more prevalent, this has been incorporated into the folklore concerning glass. In 1891 J.C. Atkinson was told that turning money in his pocket was useless because he always saw the moon through spectacles (quoted in Opie and Tatem, p. 280). A Warwickshire girl (born during the First World War) was told by her mother that ‘“Spectacles don’t count.”’ (Angela Hewins, Mary, After the Queen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 93). For one African-American informant in Illinois, however, the belief is not adapted to the spectacles, and your sight would weaken unless you took them off to see the new moon (Harry Middleton Hyatt, Folklore from Adams County Illinois, 2nd rev. edn ([New York?]: Memoirs of the Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1965). Both elements of the belief remain current, and are incorporating new developments.


I finished the assignment there, but there was more. I spoke to my dad on the ‘phone shortly after I had finished. He asked how the course was going and I told him about this assignment. I said that I had never heard of this belief before I drew out the archive card, and I had been somewhat surprised by the extent of its observation.

‘Oh,’ said my dad, ‘You should have asked your grandfather about that. He used to do that’.

I was stunned. His father, my grandfather, had died some 20 years earlier and I had no recollection of him mentioning anything of this kind. I had spoken to both my parents a few weeks earlier soliciting collectanea for another assignment, and I asked my dad why he had not mentioned this belief then.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘It’s just superstition.’

And with that I learned a number of important lessons. I continue to be uneasy about the word ‘superstition’: it implies a hierarchy of beliefs, sometimes used etically to distance the researcher from the subject but sometimes also used (as here) emically to assert the primacy of the informant’s beliefs.

But the word continues to be used, and it is negotiable. Explaining to an informant (who happened to be my dad) that I was interested in exactly these bits of undervalued (or secondary) belief and practice could both convince the informant that I was taking them seriously and encourage them to open up with what might otherwise have felt too trivial for consideration. It’s about taking apparently not very serious things very seriously indeed, and taking the people who believe or do them even more seriously. Otherwise you won’t find out anything.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Brahn boots

Implausibly, I am going to write here about clothing styles. This is not my area of expertise, and there are some who would say my ignorance of fashion goes far beyond a simple academic blindspot, but a small incident recently has pointed up a bigger theoretical issue.

Rapidity of cultural change has always been a matter of interest for folklorists. The foundation of the discipline was driven in part by a notion that as times changed the ancient past, which had lingered on into the present, was now being lost. Folklorists have moved away from such positions over the last century, but such notions still crop up among amateur enthusiasts (and not just there).

In some cases this shaped a romantic glorification of the lore being documented with the result that other lore that did not fit the required model was at best marginalised, at worst ignored completely. This was the notion of 'rescuing' lore from folk who did not understand its significance and therefore could not ensure its survival: it was an overstated argument, of course, predicated on an often wrong-headed interpretation of the material in question, and it served to remove the lore from the folk. The Edwardian folk song collectors, for example, had clear ideas of what they were looking for, and they not only did not collect the music hall songs their informants were singing alongside those traditional songs they also did not always note down what they were or that they were being sung: the result is a fantastic body of what the collectors regarded as 'folk songs' proper, but a much sketchier notion of what, how, when and where people actually sang.

This has been addressed by more recent scholars, who have identified both the newer material present in repertoires and the problems this causes in the actual practice of singing. As Ian Russell put it in his 1977 doctoral thesis 'Traditional Singing in West Sheffield, 1970-2' (which I consulted at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library):

'[A] singer who is exposed to vast amounts of new material quickly becomes unable to assimilate it. Secondly, such is the speed of "turn-over" in popular songs that singers do not have the time to absorb a new song. In practice, therefore, the availability of both recorded and broadcasted music in large quantities almost certainly produces a decline in the need for singing or playing an instrument even though it may increase the desire'.

What happens, then, with styles of dress? I am not particularly talking about either a notional 'traditional dress', assumed (probably wrongly) to be ancient and static until it is swept aside by the advent of a conveniently nasty modernity, nor of a rapid turnover of fashion, but of the ethnographic sense of dress conformity. How you dress may be the best way of putting it, because it would cover a season's fashion fads just as much as the rather slower-changing attitude towards formal wear. (I note that I come back, in my thinking here, to notions of folklore as often quite conservative in its formalising of relationships within a group).

This was prompted by going to the wedding of a very dear cousin a couple of weeks ago. For context, the bride and groom are around 40 and live in Surrey. Both work in insurance (a factor I think is important, as I will explain). The groom, his ushers and best men all wore uniform striking blue suits and brown shoes. During the speeches my uncle, the bride's father (who worked in the financial sector himself) made an oblique reference to his inability to agree 100% with the groom on style matters. On investigation I noticed that my uncle was wearing black shoes.

I also don't particularly like the look of brown shoes with strong blue suits. I would like to believe that that is a style preference all my own, but it is shaped, I know, by familiarity and expectation. The blue suit/brown shoes combination strikes me as a younger look of city/financial professionals, which may also provoke a certain reaction from me. It isn't a look I'd choose for myself, which may be an unexamined instinct I need to work through.

In the evening, sitting with another family member (81 years old, retired after a lifetime working in banking), I mentioned to my uncle that I was with him on the colour combination. This prompted an interesting exchange.

My uncle said that his attitude was shaped by an entire working life. When he had started working in the City in the late 1960s/early 1970s it had been made clear to him that he could wear a brown suit with brown shoes on a Saturday, but during the week he was expected to wear a dark suit with black shoes. My other relative, a decade or so older, agreed completely. There was an expectation imposed by work, yes, but one that shaped and trained their dress.

After they had agreed on this, my older relative laughed and said, 'Of course, it is a bit ... Brahn Boots!' This monologue by R.P. Weston and Bert Lee is most famously associated with Stanley Holloway, who recorded it in 1940. It concerns a cousin who turns up at a funeral in brown boots and is shunned by the family as a result. Only later do they realise it is because he has lent his black pair to someone who has no boots at all.

If brown shoes with blue suits becomes more established it may not only mean a change in dress trends (which might previously have been interpreted as the end of a particular dress tendency, although that's a perverse way of looking at changes in the way people actually live their lives): any such such change would be accompanied by a change in cultural representations. The less surprised people are at seeing brown shoes with formal wear the less likely they are to remember such pieces from an earlier period, or even to invoke them. I don't feel regretful at this, although some such pieces are better than others: I am interested to see what happens and how.

For completeness' sake, I should note that I was wearing a brown suit and brown shoes. But then, it was a Saturday.