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12 Aug 2020

Predicting the future at the Tenement House in Glasgow

Written by Rachel Campbell, Visitor Services Assistant (Collections), The Tenement House
The front cover of a book, 'How to read Hands' by Cheiro, shows the palms of two hands with fortune-telling lines marked on them. The back cover shows a lady with a tin of bile beans, with the advert stating 'bile beans banish ill health'.
Miss Agnes Toward (1886–1975) moved into the Tenement House at 145 Buccleuch Street in 1911 with her mother, during which time they lived through the First and Second World Wars, and public health scares such as Spanish influenza and tuberculosis.

Within the archive at the Tenement House is a collection of guides to palmistry, horoscopes and interpreting dreams, all kept by Miss Toward and rediscovered after her passing in 1975.

This may seem like a strange collection of objects for our Miss Toward to have owned, but throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a growing fascination with the supernatural and spiritual in Britain.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took part in a séance with renowned clairvoyant Georgiana Eagle, and Victoria famously tried to make contact with her beloved husband after his death in 1861. With high levels of child mortality due to poor health and diseases such as measles, the Victorians did all they could to seek comfort in the future and contact their loved ones who had passed away.

The interest in the spiritual continued into the 20th century, and became particularly popular after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In one way or another, the war would have affected almost every household in Britain, and Miss Toward lost a work colleague in 1916. The promise of a glimpse into the future brought comfort to many. Many companies began to use ‘how to’ guides as a form of advertising. Doan’s Book of Coming Events listed detailed horoscope predictions alongside its advertising of the company’s kidney pills, and The Future Foretold, Your Fate in a Teacup was sold alongside tins of Melrose Tea. The belief was that by being able to read these predictions people could be more hopeful of their loved ones on the frontline and public morale at the home front would be upheld.

This guide on How to read Hands by Cheiro was printed in the 1930s and advertised bile beans, which claimed to cure a number of ailments. Cheiro was a world-renowned palm reader, and was said to have read the palms of top celebrities and royalty, including Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). As well as the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Agnes Toward lost her mother in the same year and it’s likely that she would have sought reassurance during these uncertain times.

It was believed that women were more susceptible to the supernatural and were more likely to engage in these activities. The ‘Aunt Kate’ series of books were published in Scotland in the 1930s and covered all manner of handy household tips for the 1930s housewife. Within the series of ‘Aunt Kate’s Handy Books’ kept by Miss Toward were Aunt Kate’s Dream Book and Aunt Kate’s Fortune Teller.

Two book covers: 'Aunt Kate's Dream Book', which has four circles, showing 'dreams'. The front cover of 'Aunt Kate's Fortune Teller' shows a lady with a scarf and shawl behind a table with cards set out on it.

By the 1950s and 1960s the popularity of fortune telling waned, but these quirky books remained stored away by Miss Toward at the Tenement House.

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