Promises of Love and Money: Occult Forecasting in Early 20th-Century New York City

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 2:10 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Jamie Pietruska, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
The long Gilded Age featured a culture of prediction in which routinized predictions of everyday life became commonplace as crop forecasters, “weather prophets,” business forecasters, utopian novelists, and fortune-tellers produced and often sold their visions of the future. Historians have located the origins of modern scientific forecasting in the mid- to late-twentieth-century contexts of Cold War geopolitics, climate science, and futurism, but a scientific and cultural preoccupation with systematic forecasting first emerged after the American Civil War. New predictive tools like agricultural statistics, weather telegraphy, and commodity price forecasts yielded new forms of economic knowledge that functioned as forms of risk management in the “economic chance-world” of the late nineteenth century. But, as this paper will illustrate, the Gilded Age culture of prediction also included the explosion of the occult forecasting business in postbellum cities. The 1890s witnessed a fortune-telling “craze” in which ancient practices of fortune-telling and astrology were reimagined as new forms of scientific knowledge production that promised to help individuals better anticipate daily economic life. This paper will focus on the careers of Adena Minott and Evangeline Adams, two women who launched lucrative character-reading and astrology businesses in New York City in the early twentieth century, in order to illuminate their place in a broader history of Gilded Age forecasting largely dominated by white, male professionals. It will demonstrate that the labors of Minott and Adams were not part of a marginal, informal, or underground economy but were rather highly visible in the commercial world of early-twentieth-century New York. This paper will also reveal how claims to knowledge about the future were policed—but also subverted—according to ideologies of race and gender.
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