Bobbing for Apples, c.1940

Five children show their skill in the American Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples. In this game apples are set afloat in a tub of water, and participants must catch the bobbing apples using only their teeth. Easier said than done, especially when trying to keep a dry face!

As with other Halloween traditions such as jack o'lanterns and bonfires, the roots of bobbing for apples go back to Celtic harvest celebrations.  Some scholars suggest that the Celts might also have been influenced by the Roman occupation of Britain 43-410 CE. Romans worshipped Pomona, goddess of orchard fruit, and celebrated her as part of their own harvest rituals. Various aspects of these ancient celebrations survived in many parts of the British Isles, especially in the north, and eventually merged with Christian culture to become more like our modern Halloween.

Halloween became fashionable in 19th century America, partly because of the arrival of Irish and Scottish immigrants, but also because of the power of Victorian marketing. Halloween cards, costumes, and parties were hugely popular, and bobbing for apples was one of the party games that survived the cultural leap. 

America has in turn exported its version of Halloween back to the British Isles and other cultures. While many are sceptical about the commercialisation of the holiday, it might be fair to say that the humour of sticking your head in a bucket of cold water has a timeless appeal.

Color Reconstruction Jordan Lloyd
Words Emily Kern

Original Photograph by Leslie Jones
Format  1 negative : film, black & white ; 3 1/8 x 4 1/4 in.
Date c.1940
Location USA
Source The Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection