Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/September 1893/Folk-Lore Study in America



IN the summer of 1887 a circular letter containing a proposal for the formation of a Folk-lore Society in America was quietly, perhaps timidly, sent to a faithful few. Again, in October of the same year was issued a second letter, subscribed with a hundred and four names, representing different parts of the United States and Canada. Briefly stated, it was proposed to form a society for the study of folk lore, of which the principal object shall be to establish a journal of a scientific character designed—

1. For the collection of the fast-vanishing remains of folk lore in America—namely, (a) relics of old English folk lore (ballads, tales, superstitions, etc.); (b) lore of negroes in the Southern States; (c) lore of the Indian tribes in North America (myths, tales, etc.); (d) lore of French Canada, Mexico, etc.

2. For the study of the general subject and publication of the results of special students in this department.

The outcome was that, on the 4th of January, 1888, a goodly number of persons interested in folk-lore study assembled in University Hall, Harvard University. Then and there The American Folk-lore Society was born and baptized. Prof. Francis J. Child was chosen president, an honor merited by his long and splendid service in the field. Fourteen persons were named as a council to conduct the affairs of the new society. Mr. William Wells Newell was elected secretary. At the same time a committee, consisting of Prof. T. Frederick Crane, Dr. Franz Boas, Rev. J. Owen Dorsey, and the secretary, was appointed to make arrangements for the publication of a journal.

The first number of the Journal of American Folk Lore made its appearance in April, 1888. The five volumes already issued are ample evidences of the wealth of popular traditions in this country. They form a perfect mine of information for the study of folk lore. The contributions which have been printed in the Journal touch on almost every side of the subject. They include myths and tales of the Indians, negroes, and Creoles, strange and curious customs, superstitions of all kinds and all shades, beliefs in witches and goblins, queer practices, magic and divination, songs, dances, games, nursery rhymes, riddles, wise saws, and dialect words.

Few persons, even those who were directly interested in the study, had any adequate idea of the body and bulk of folk-lore materials extant in North America. First in quantity and quality come the collections of the lore of the Indian tribes. This, of course, was to be expected. The contributions by Prof. Hale, Dr. Boas, Mr. Beauchamp, Rev. J. Owen Dorsey, Mr. Chamberlain, Dr. Mathews, Captain Bourke, Dr. Fewkes, Mr. Mooney, Dr. Brinton, Miss Fletcher, and others have been noticed by Prof. Frederick Starr in his article on Anthropological Study in America.[1]

Perhaps the most striking results have been obtained in fields heretofore unvisited and unworked. We refer particularly to the lore found within the past four or five years among foreign-born Prof. Francis J. Child. and English-speaking peoples, both in thickly settled districts and in out-of-the-way places. Dr. Hoffman's collection of the folk lore of the Pennsylvania Germans; Prof. Fortier's account of Creole customs and superstitions, together with his versions of Creole nursery tales; Mr. Mooney's and Miss Hoke's articles on the folk lore of the North Carolina mountain region; Mr. Culin's paper on Chinese customs and superstitions in Philadelphia and New York; Mr. Henry Lang's account of the Portuguese element in New England; Mrs. Bergen's and Mr. Newell's studies of current superstitions in different sections of the United States-these contributions, to name no others, show that emigrants to America, if they did not bring much material wealth, certainly carried with them what Carlyle calls "old clothes philosophy." Every number of the Folk-lore Journal has been a revelation to its many readers. We predict that greater surprises than those already given are in store for us.

The greatest progress in folk-lore study in this country has been made within the past six years, and it is significant to note that the Folk-lore Society has grown during the same time. Prior to 1887 the study of popular tradition in America was unorganized. Since then the investigations of special students in different fields have been collated and systematized, and, above all, those interested in the subject have been brought together. Thus to-day there is a certain esprit de corps among American folk-lorists that was unknown some six or eight years ago.

Naturally the new society has had to do quite an amount of missionary work. What our folk-lore scholars are "driving at" the importance of the study of unwritten traditions, the value of Indian myths and rude customs, of negro fables, or of old superstitions, the great necessity of gathering the lore of American folk while there are time and opportunity—these are matters that the general public do not yet fully understand or appreciate. Folk lore is a study to which every one can add his or her mite, from the farmer to the stock broker, from the servant girl to the mistress. We find many quaint and curious items of superstition or traditionary lore in the parlor, in the kitchen, and in Wall Street. Indeed, we need only to read the daily newspaper reports of clairvoyants, mediums, fortune-telling, haunted houses, etc., to be reminded of those low forms of thought that characterize rude and uncivilized communities.

The American Folk-lore Society has continued to increase in numbers from the very beginning. It now has a membership of Mr. W. W. Newell. five hundred, which exceeds that of any similar organization in Europe. The influence of the society has been strengthened and extended principally by the formation of branch societies in different sections of the country. There are now folk-lore societies in six large cities—in Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Montreal, Chicago, and New York. The Chicago Folklore Society is an independent body; the others are affiliated with the national society.

The effect of these local societies on the future study of folk lore in America can not be estimated at the present time. Already their influence has been felt in many quarters. The meetings bring people together for an interchange of views and for pleasant entertainment. Although these societies have a social side and function, they are in fact working societies, as the following will show:

The first local branch of the American Folk-lore Society was established in November, 1889, at Philadelphia—a city noted for the number of persons interested in the study.[2] The stated meetings of the chapter are held on the second Wednesday of the month from November to June. Many carefully prepared papers Prof. Alcée Fortier. have been read at the meetings, and some of them have been printed in the Journal. Among these we may mention Miss Alice C. Fletcher's able address on Child Life among the American Indians; Mrs. de Guerrero's paper on Games and Popular Superstitions of Nicaragua; and Mr. Stewart Culin's interesting remarks on Children's Street Games.

The Folk-lore Museum established in connection with the Philadelphia chapter is unique. Many rare and valuable objects have been collected and are deposited in the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. These objects serve to illustrate myth, religion, custom, and superstition the world over. The collection includes idols and ceremonial objects from China, Japan, India, Thibet, Egypt, Polynesia, Africa, North and South America. Prominent in this exhibit are amulets and charms of paper and wood and metal. Very interesting are those implements used for divination and fortune-telling and those manipulated in games. Thus, the evolution of the playing card is shown; so too the games of chess and backgammon are displayed in their various forms or types. Nor have the games and toys and dolls of children been overlooked. They are all there—even Noah's ark, with its beasts and birds, two and two. Such a museum is an "object lesson" in folk lore.[3]

Several informal meetings of persons living in Boston and its vicinity were held during 1888-89. But it was not until March, 1890, that "The Boston Association" of the American Folk-lore Society was organized.[4] The meetings are held once a month, from November to June, in the rooms of the Boston Natural History Society or at private houses.

The activity of the Boston Association has been considerable. Some pleasant features have been introduced into the proceedings Prof. D. P. Penhallow. in order to give variety to the study in which the members are interested. In 1891 a performance was held, under the auspices of the association, at the Chinese theater. Last winter an entertainment was given under the name of "The Japanese Dance." The dances presented histories or the phenomena of Nature, displayed by gesture and motion; thus, Harusame (the Dew of Spring) showed the falling of dew on flowers; Sedogahataki (the Vegetable Garden), a humorous dance, illustrating the gathering of pumpkins and the tripping over the vines; Goshorasuma illustrated how a maiden received her first love-letter, and so on.

The Louisiana Association of the American Folk-lore Society was organized in December, 1891, at New Orleans.[5] The number of members is fifty. The meetings of the association are held in the library of Tulane University and at private residences, and they have been exceedingly profitable and agreeable.

The members of the Louisiana Association have a grand chance to make their work known and felt. They are at home in one of the most promising fields of folk-lore exploration in the United States. There has been a strange mingling of races in Louisiana. The result is that relics of the voodoo or obi rites, conjurings, magic, medical superstitions, fables, plantation songs, and religious notions of the negroes linger on side by side with the superstitions, ghost stories, omens, charms, nursery tales, and rhymes brought by the whites from Europe. The quaint dialects of these settlers offer an inviting field of study which should not be overlooked.

The Louisiana Association has given an impulse to folk lore study in the State, and it has resulted in the collection of many stories and superstitions current among the Creoles and negroes "before the war." The ladies have contributed many items of Miss Alice C. Fletcher. traditionary lore. Mrs. Preston Johnston, Mrs. Mason Cooke, Mrs. C. V. Jamison, and Mrs. M. E. Davis have written out stories told to them in childhood by their negro nurses. The folk lore of French Louisiana has been collected by Prof. Fortier during the past twenty years. Some of this valuable material has appeared in the Folk-lore Journal, and some of it, entitled Bits of Louisiana Folk Lore, was printed in the Transactions of the Modern Language Association for 1887. Thanks to American scholarship, not to American liberality, the complete work of Prof. Fortier will be issued shortly, as the second of a series of monographs of the American Folklore Society.[6]

It is with pleasure that we record the establishment of a society for the study of folk lore in Canada. The formation of the Montreal branch was due largely to the diplomatic efforts of Prof. D. P. Penhallow and Mr. John Reade, who soon had the cordial sympathy and support of many Canadian students, among whom we may name Hon. H. Beaugrand (ex-Mayor of Montreal), Dr. Louis Fréchette (lauréat of the French Academy), Mr. W. J. White, Mr. Henry Carter, Dr. Robert Bell, F. G. S., Dr. Beers, Dr. Le May, Dr. Kingsford, F. R. S. Can., and Dr. S. E. Dawson, Queen's printer. Several informal meetings were held during the winter of 1892, and in April of that year a permanent organization was effected.[7] The membership roll shows a list of about sixty names. Many interesting papers have been read at the meetings, and the social element has been combined with serious study in a most delightful manner.

It is hardly necessary to call attention to the opportunities for the study of folk lore in Canada. This has been done by Mr. Reade in a very suggestive paper read before the Montreal society.[8] We need only refer to the mingling of races in Canada. The Indian tribes of the Northwest; the descendants of the pioneers of French Canada, of the loyalists, and of the Scotch, Irish, English, and Germans; the scattered settlements of Russians, Hungarians, Norsemen, Chinese, etc., in western Canada—these folk afford as rich field for inquiries of the folk-lorist as he or she would desire. Some curious items of superstition, or traditionary lore, found in the provinces, have been collected, but much remains in the mouths of the folk, the plain people in country towns and districts. Meanwhile a series of investigations relating to the Indian tribes of the Northwest are going on under the auspices of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, aided by the Canadian Government.

The New York branch of the American Folk-lore Society was organized in February of this year.[9] The membership at the first meeting was about forty; it is now double that number. The metropolis has become the stamping-ground for representatives of all the nations of the earth. There are old-fashioned people as well as Huns and Vandals in New York. The right person will find plenty of folk lore in the "quarters" of the Italians, Poles, Jews, Czechs, Hungarians, Chinese, etc. Within a radius of one hundred miles around the city there are settlements that would furnish the material eagerly wanted by the Folk-lore Society. The other day Dr. Bolton found an intelligent, skilled workman in the metropolis, who used the magic mirror (the Urim and Thummim of the ancient Jews) for the purposes of divination. Mr. George B. Grinnell. The seer made use of the Urim to guide his daily life, and to consult with the spirits of many distinguished persons from whom he received communications. Dr. Bolton found also a fruitful field of inquiry in the counting-out rhymes of children.[10] Another member of the New York branch who has contributed to our slender stock of knowledge concerning the Pawnee and Blackfeet Indians is Mr. George Bird Grinnell. He is at home with these "prairie people," as they are called. He has lived, slept, camped, hunted, and "swapped stories" with them. His collection of Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk Tales showed what other travelers had missed. Mr. Grinnell is by adoption a member of the Blackfeet tribe, and his book of Blackfoot Lodge Tales tells the life of a Blackfoot brave from infancy to his departure at death to the Sandhills—the happy hunting ground of the tribe. Among other members of the New York branch we may mention the work of Mrs. Harriett Maxwell Converse, who is by adoption a member of the Seneca tribe, and Mr. De Cost Smith, who has written and sketched cleverly the ceremonies of the Onondagas.

The Chicago Folk-lore Society is an independent organization, not a branch of the American Folk-lore Society. This society was organized in December, 1891.[11] The membership of the society numbers now about eighty persons, with about twenty non-resident members. A manual for the use of members has been prepared by Lieutenant F. S. Bassett, and it contains many practical observations and suggestions for collectors. The Chicago society publishes a quarterly journal called The Folk-lorist, edited by Lieutenant Bassett and Mrs. Bassett, both of whom deserve credit for promoting the organized study of folk lore in Chicago. The contribution on Illinois Folk Lore, by Miss Helen M. Wheeler, shows what the right person can do in the State outside of the cities. Many of the superstitions of the pioneers of the Western country have disappeared, but the traditional customs and beliefs of their descendants, if closely studied as they Colonel Charles C. Jones, Jr. have been noted by some American novelists, should yield unexpected results.

The meetings of the Chicago Folk-lore Society are held once a month at the Woman's Club Rooms. They have been very interesting and well attended. Some idea of the useful work done may be gained from the programme presented at the meeting in April last. The guests of the evening were Mrs. French-Sheldon, the African explorer, and Captain John G. Bourke. There were contributions by Mrs. Molly Eliot Seawell, Miss Mary A. Owen (the author of a book of Voodoo Tales), Mrs. Eva Wigstrœm, of Sweden, Mr. A. M. Stephen, and Prof. H. Hurlburt. The readers were Major Joseph Kirkland, Mr. Franklin H. Head, Captain E. L. Huggins, and Mrs. Wilmarth.[12]

This completes the list of local folk-lore societies in America. It is expected that one or two new branches will be established before another year. There should be folk-lore societies in fields in which opportunities to gather valuable material are found: for example, in the Pennsylvania coal fields, where Hungarians congregate; in the Southwest, where the negroes and "poor whites" touch elbows; in the Northwest, where the Scandinavians are numerous; and on the Pacific coast, where Indians, Chinese, and half-breeds mingle.

A few words as to the work of the officers and leaders of the national Folk-lore Society,[13] The honor of holding the presidency rightfully belongs to Prof. Horatio Hale, whose studies date back to a time when the term "folk lore" could not be found in Webster's Dictionary. His first important contribution was to the volume of Ethnography and Philology of the United States Exploring Expedition under Wilkes (Volume VII). Then Prof. Hale increased his reputation by editing The Iroquois Book of Rites,[14] This Iroquois book is almost pure folk lore, and has a special interest, as showing how authentic history can be derived from popular tradition where this has been handed down in public and solemn recitations. To this evidence alone we owe the establishment of the fact that Hiawatha was not a mythical hero, but an actual Onondaga chief, who lived between four and five centuries ago, and helped to form the great Iroquois Confederation. For further information on the story of Hiawatha, see Mr. Beauchamp's scholarly paper entitled Hi-a-wat-ha, in the Journal of American Folk Lore (for 1891, p. 295).

The man who is responsible for the very existence of such an organization as The American Folk-lore Society is William Wells Newell. He it was who issued the call to arms, who drafted the circular letter already referred to, who put the new organization in line with the great anthropological movement in America, who has generously given his time and services to the cause of folk lore; who, in short, has been the general executive officer of the society from the beginning. All this has been a labor of love with our honored permanent secretary. Mr. Newell won his reputation as a folk-lorist by his book of Games and Songs of American Children (1883). Since then he has contributed to the Journal of American Folk Lore a large number of valuable papers, which we all hope to see some day within the covers of a book.

A clever writer in The Saturday Review (whom we suspect to be none other than Andrew Lang) begins his book review with two sentences which deserve to be quoted at this place.[15] He says: "(1) It is not very much to our national credit that an American, Prof. Child, is making far the best edition of our ballads. (2) Nor is it very much to the credit of Ireland that an American has made much the most interesting collections of her old popular tales." Prof. Child's monumental edition of English and Scottish Popular Ballads represents the best years of his life. It is a veritable mine of comparative folk lore, to which scholars will go again and again, and all will come away richer and wiser after their visit.

The American referred to in the second sentence above quoted is Mr. Jeremiah Curtin, a member of the Folk-lore Society. His collection of the Myths and Folk Lore of Ireland should make every lover of old Ireland his friend. Mr. Curtin gained his training and experience in collection of our Indian myths. He has published recently a collection of Myths and Folk Tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and Magyars (1890), in which his singular ability as a collector and interpreter of popular tradition is again displayed. Another member of the Folk-lore Society, Mr. James Mooney, went over to Ireland with the purpose of studying the traditions of his ancestral county. His account of The Holiday Customs of Ireland is a remarkably fine bit of work.[16] Mr. Mooney's special work has been under the auspices of the Bureau of Ethnology. His examination of the theory and practice of medicine among the Cherokee Indians is a masterly presentation of an obscure and complicated folk practice.[17]

The study of negro lore has been the means of making the reputation of at least one American writer. We refer of course to Mr. Joel Chandler Harris, to whom will always be given the credit of making the lore of the plantation interesting alike to the student and the general reader. His Uncle Remus Tales have a scientific worth, aside from a literary value. In his Negro Myths, Colonel Charles C. Jones has done for the dialect and folk lore of the negroes of the Georgia coast what Mr. Harris did so wonderfully well for the legends of the old plantation of middle Georgia. The stories of Daddy Jack and Daddy Sandy are on a par with the tales of Uncle Remus. But there is a difference in the lingo of the negroes; the darkies of the Georgia rice-fields and swamp region have almost a different language from that of the colored folk of Maryland or of Tennessee.

It did not take Prof. Crane long to make the interesting discovery that the fables and "yarns" of Uncle Remus were parallel to stories Prof. Hartt heard from his guide on the Amazon River, to stories collected by Dr. Bleek in South Africa, and to popular tales in Europe. He was able to trace the majority of the Legends of the Old Plantation to their foreign variants.[18] Prof. Crane is our acknowledged authority in the field of storiology. He first published a charming collection of Italian Popular Tales, with a scholarly introduction and elaborate notes. His able paper on Mediæval Sermons, Books, and Stories was followed by a Prof. T. Frederick Crane. critical edition of The Exempla, or Illustrative Stories from the Sermones Vulgares of Jacques de Vitry, published by the English Folk-lore Society in its series of memoirs (1890). Jacques de Vitry was an eloquent and popular bishop of the thirteenth century, who made great use of apologues, or exempla, in his sermons, with the express purpose of instructing and sometimes of amusing his audiences. These illustrative stories were diffused over all Europe, and some of them have won their way into literature—have reappeared now in the fables of La Fontaine, and then in the plays of Molière and Shakespeare. Prof. Crane has published recently an edition of Chansons Populaires de la France, a selection from French popular ballads.

Thus far the work of American folk-lorists has been directed almost entirely to the collection of material to be collated and examined afterward according to scientific methods. American students think that the time has not yet come for theoretical discussions, such as English and Continental scholars have waged so sharply at times and without good cause. Nor are they ready yet to favor the establishment of a separate science of folk lore. In the Handbook, issued by the authority of the English Society, it is stated that "the definition of the science of folk lore, as the society will in future study it, may be taken to be as follows: the comparison and identification of the survivals of archaic beliefs, customs, and traditions in modern ages." So far, so good.

But the truth is that the exact definition of the term "folk lore" is still a matter in dispute. The proper place of the "science of folk lore" remains to be settled. Thus there will be two folk-lore congresses at the World's Columbian Exposition: one congress to be held in the month of July, in connection with the Department of Literature; the other Folk-lore Congress to be held in August, with the Congress of Anthropology. There is no department of comparative folk-lore in any college or university.

Finally, we attribute the rapid progress and popularity of folklore study in America and in Europe to three reasons: (1) Folk lore is a study to which almost every one can contribute something; (3) folk lore is a study which throws a flood of light on man's past mental evolution and culture-history, as the Germans call the study; (3) folk lore is a study in which the student of religions, the student of morals, the ethnologist, the antiquarian, the psychologist, the historian, the poet, and the littérateur, each finds a different interest and a different value.

  1. In The Popular Science Monthly for July, 1892.
  2. The following officers were chosen: President, Mr. Victor Guilloû; secretary, Mr. Stewart Culin; treasurer, Mr. J. Granville Leach; librarian, Mr. John W. Jordan, Jr.; committee, Messrs. Richard L. Ashurst and Francis C. Macaulay, and Mrs. Cornelius Stevenson.
  3. It may not be amiss to call attention to the exhibition of folk-lore objects at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It forms part of a section of the Department of Ethnology and Archæology of the Exposition. There will be also an anthropological library and a display of the current numbers of folk-lore journals throughout the world.
  4. The following officers were chosen: President, Mr. Frederick W. Putnam; vice-presidents, Miss Abby L. Alger, department of Algonkin folk lore; Clarence J. Blake, folk music; Prof. Francis J. Child, English folk lore; Dana Estes, literature and publication; Miss Mary Hemenway, Zuñi folk lore; Colonel Thomas W. Higginson, Southern folk lore; secretary, W. W. Newell; treasurer, Arthur G. Everett.
  5. The officers of the association are: President, Prof. Alcée Fortier; vice-president, Mrs. Mary A. Townsend; secretary and treasurer, Mr. William Beer; assistant secretary, Edward Forster; executive board, Mrs. Francis Blake, Mrs. M. E. Davis, Mrs. George Howe, and Colonel William Preston Johnston.
  6. The American Folk-lore Society is about to begin a series of Memoirs. The first of these will consist of a collection of Folk Tales of Angola (Africa) by Mr. Heli Chatelain. The connection of West African folk lore with that of American negroes brings the material within the field covered by the society, and should excite much interest.
  7. The officers of the Montreal branch of the American Folk-lore Society for 1893 are as follows: President, Prof. D. P. Penhallow, McGill University; vice-presidents, M. Louis Fréchette and Mr. John Reade; secretary, Mr. F. E. Came; treasurer, Mr. W. J. White; ladies' committee, Mrs. Robert Reid, Mrs. L. Fréchette, Mrs. H. B. Ames, Mrs. K. Boissevain. Miss Macdonnell, and Miss Van Horne.
  8. Published in the Dominion Illustrated Monthly for June, 1892.
  9. The officers of this branch are as follows: President, Dr. H. Carrington Bolton; first vice-president, Mr. George Bird Grinnell; second vice-president, Mr. Richard Watson Gilder; secretary, Mr. William B. Tuthill; treasurer, Mr. Sydney A. Smith; ladies' committee, Mrs. Henry Draper, Mrs. Harriet M. Converse, and Mrs. Mary J. Field.
  10. The Counting-out Rhymes of Children: their Antiquity, Origin, and Distribution. A Study in Folk Lore. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1888.
  11. The officers for the year 1893-94 are as follows: President, Prof. William I. Knapp; vice-presidents. Captain E. L. Huggins, United States Navy, department of Sioux and cognate tribes; Rabbi E. G. Hirsch, Semitic folk lore; Prof. Frederick Starr, Dr. Washington Mathews, Indian tribes of the Southwest; Mr. George W. Cable, Southern folk songs; secretary. Lieutenant Fletcher S. Bassett, United States Navy; treasurer, Miss Elizabeth Head; directors, Mrs. Fletcher S. Bassett, Mrs. Potter Palmer, and Mrs. Edward E. Aver.
  12. The Chicago Folklore Society has adopted a seal and motto—an idea which might be used by the other societies. The figure in the seal represents the meal-sprinkler of the Navajos—the courier sent out by the priest (hiring the ceremonies of the "Mountain Chant." The motto on the seal is the well-known line from Hiawatha—"Whence these legends and traditions." (Dr. Mathews's account of the ceremonies in Report of the Bureau of Ethnology for 1883-'84.)
  13. The officers of the American Folk-Lore Society for the year 1 893 are as follows: President, Horatio Hale, Clinton, Ontario; first vice-president, Alcée Fortier; second vicepresident, D. P. Penhallow. Council, Franz Boas, H. Carrington Bolton, D. G. Brinton, A. F. Chamberlain, J. Owen Dorsey, Alice C. Fletcher, George Bird Grinnell, Otis T. Mason, and Frederick W. Putnam. Permanent secretary, William Wells Newell, Cambridge, Mass.; corresponding secretary, J. Walter Fewkes; treasurer, John H. Hinton, M. D.; curator, Stewart Culin.
  14. It forms No. 2 of Brinton's Library of Aboriginal American Literature, Philadelphia, 1883.
  15. For April 12, 1890.
  16. Published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1889.
  17. In the Journal of American Folk Lore, 1890; also Bureau of Ethnology, 1885-'86.
  18. Prof. Crane's study appeared in The Popular Science Monthly, April, 1881.