Innovations in printing and publication in the early 19th century expanded the access and possibilities of print. One literary genre that was popular in the antebellum literary marketplace was fortune teller/dream books. These books gave their readers an opportunity to analyze their dreams and ultimately predict the future. Fortune telling itself, had a profound impact on the black community as it was not only a means of gaining freedom from slavery, but it also provided financial stability for many. Various cities across America have some historical events linked to fortune-telling (or the business aspect of it). The circulation of fortune teller/dream books and their popularity in certain American cities reflect the profitability of this genre within the black community during antebellum times. Understanding the printing culture during the mid-1800s as well as the circulation of Fortune Teller/Dream Books is one way of understanding the literary impact of Russell’s text and many other dream books.

Figure 1. The following timeline reflects the publication of various dream books over the 19th century.

Map of Circulation of Dream Books

Cultural Impact of Dream Books in the Black Community—The Lottery

“Dreams were everything to numbers players, just as dreams have deep significance in black culture. Many black folks believed when they dreamed about something specific, that spirit was blessing them with a certain number to play. This is one key way that the Numbers is intricately connected to black folks’ larger sense of hoping for a better future, of getting closer to achieving the American dream.”

– Bridgett Davis, NYT [1]

The lucrative nature of the lottery had a symbiotic relationship with fortune teller/dream books in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fortune teller books that demonstrate this longevity predominately focused on, “…predict[ing] the future by interpreting dreams…” [ 9] Whether authored by African Americans or marketed as though it were, the stereotype of the African American fortune-teller proved to be popular among various communities in America. A number of books such as Old Aunt Dinah’s Policy Dream Book and Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream Book aimed to, “analyze dream themes to determine numbers to play on the lottery, with directions regarding which order to play them…” [7]


In the 19th century, a form of gambling known as policy became popular in the African American community and had a major impact on various aspects of society during its time. Author Shane White describes the game of policy in the paper ‘The Gold Diggers of 1833’, “For a small sum of money…individuals could “insure” or take a policy on a number with a broker or agent, or, in other words, take the chance that that particular number would be drawn in a lottery on a given day.” [8] In many policy shops, fortune-dream books were available for purchase or referral, allowing individuals to play numbers depending on the dream they may have had.

Old Aunt Dinah’s Policy Dream Book, an excerpt from the book depicting the association of dreams with numbers that can be later used in the game of policy (lottery).

The uproar of policy in various cities, such as New York, as a result of the crime related to it, lead to the illegalization of the lottery. Various figures in the government had much to say on the impact policy had on various communities; Judge Mordecai Noah in January 1842, “ ‘there is great cause to apprehend that the practice is extensive, increasing and ruinous.’” [8] Though the government’s supposed intent to put down the insuring of numbers was to better the black community, most African Americans begged to differ. As discussed in Bridgett Davis’ article in the New York Times, the numbers business, “…employed an estimated 100,000 workers across the five boroughs…bankrolled many small business… [and] saved many from bankruptcy.” [1]

The fight to preserve the policy institution in the black community, though lost, can be seen in both the 19th and 20th centuries across America. The following figure depicts an article, featured in the Southwestern Christian Advocate published in 1891, featuring an opponent against the numbers business.


  1. Davis, Bridgett M. “The Daily Lottery Was Originally a Harlem Game. Then Albany Wanted In.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Feb. 2019,
  2. “Down the Lottery.” Southwestern Christian Advocate, 22 Oct. 1891. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.
  3. Gardner, Eric. “‘The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book’: An Antebellum Text ‘By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour.’” The New England Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2, 2005, pp. 259–288. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.
  4. “Multiple Classified Advertisements.” United States Telegraph, 3 May 1830. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.
  5. “Multiple Classified Advertisements.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 July 1874, p. 319. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.
  6. “Multiple Classified Advertisements.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 30 Jan. 1875, p. 351. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.
  8. White, Shane. “The Gold Diggers of 1833: African American Dreams, Fortune-Telling, Treasure-Seeking, and Policy in Antebellum New York City.” Journal of Social History, vol. 47, no. 3, 2014, pp. 673–695. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.
  9. Anderson, Jeffrey E. The Voodoo Encyclopedia: Magic, Ritual, and Religion. ABC-CLIO, 2015.