Choosing a number

In choosing a number to bet on, Harlem’s residents turned to their surroundings:  they found gigs — three digit numbers — on subway cards and license plates, in baseball scores and hat sizes, and in church, in the numbers of the hymns they sung and the chapter and verse of the scripture they read. But often they found numbers in their dreams.

Talking about dreams became ubiquitous among African Americans in the mid to late 1920s, and an industry grew up around interpreting dreams and translating them into numbers, the main element of which was the dream book.

'Black Magic Store', Weegee (1942), Getty Images

A wave of these publications appeared in for sale in Harlem’s stationery stores and newsstands.  (The photo on the right, taken in 1942 by Weegee, misidentifies the dream books on display in a ‘herb and potion shop’ as magic books)

Each dream book provided numbers for things such as holidays, names, days and months, items such as razors and leaky pipes, and incidents that occurred in everyday Harlem life, like funeral processions and stabbings.

For an example of a dream book, see Policy Pete’s Dream Book.

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