The Strong’s Artifact of the Month: The Sibyl Fortune Teller

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Fortune tellers use a variety of methods to explore the future, including studying tea leaves, handwriting, palms, cards, and the contours of the human head. In the early 1400s, people played games with the first Tarot cards. Soon, however, the deck became associated with magic and mysticism. In the 19th century, European and American game manufactures produced special fortune-telling card games that people still use today.
The Black Cat Fortune Telling Gme, Parker Brothers, 1900, Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NYI recently asked a co-worker if she would predict my fortune with the aid of The Black Cat Fortune Telling Game released by Parker Brothers in 1897. To read a fortune, the teller categorically places out the printed cards. The teller than aligns a single line of text across four cards and ta-da, the fortune is revealed. According to the Black Cat Fortune Telling Game, my future looked bleak. The cards my co-worker unveiled suggested that I am destined for destitution, ill-fated romance, and disease. Needless to say, I felt miserable about my impending doom.

I took some comfort, however, in knowing that other means of fortune-telling exist. The Strong’s collections present an array of artifacts that demonstrate how people play with fortunes. One of the most charming methods appears in the form of fortune-telling dolls or Fate Ladies. In the 19th century, books provided a player with instruction manuals that detailed how to sew a dress and make a hat for a fortune-telling doll. Girls made Fate Ladies out of wood, porcelain, china, and papier-mâché dolls. The books explained how a girl should write fortunes on slips of paper and then craft a skirt of folded-paper leaves. The Sibyl Fortune Teller fate lady from The Strong’s collections wears a black wig and a black silk blouse with hand-drawn symbols. She carries a note that reads, “If the truth you wish to learn, give my skirt a quarter turn.” I like to think that the Sibyl Fortune Teller taps into a player’s positive energies and encourages playful fortunes.
The Sibyl Fortune Teller Doll, 1925-1930, Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NYSome people consider the messages of a Magic 8 Ball, Ouija Board, or The Gypsy Queen Your Fortune Told, hocus pocus. Others believe that fortunes confirm and direct individual life choices. A local fortune teller notes that “the alignment of energy brings forward the information you need for your present situation to help unlock your hidden talents, unravel life-long problems, or give you the direction you seek.” Given the fortune I received, I think I’ll let my conscious be my guide.

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