Welcome to our third guest blog post – looking at the curious case of manhole cover superstitions, as written by Hildegunn M.S. Traa. If you would like to submit an article, please tell us about your proposal using the form on the Contact page or by sending us a message on Twitter, and we will be in touch. Thank you for reading!
For most people, manhole covers or drains are just a part of any urban scenery – but for some, avoiding to step on them has become an annoying compulsion. I am of course talking about the superstition of manhole covers and drains causing bad luck! Where did this weird belief start? Is it only connected to the UK or is this a wider phenomenon? Also, does it have anything to do with the urban legend of alligators in the sewer? Let’s find out!
As far as my research could reach, this fear seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. However, most of the research and sources suggest a particularly strong presence of this superstition in Scandinavia and the UK. It is not clear when or where this belief started, though we can presume that it started in cities or urban areas after sewer systems became common. The earliest record I could find for this trend is from the Swedish city of Göteborg around the 1940s.
The fear of manhole covers spread through Sweden in the 1950s and their superstition has lasted to present day. The most common interpretation is that any covers with the letter K engraved on it mean Kärlek (love) and you can use them to manifest love towards your crush; that covers with a V mean Vennskap (friendship); but covers with an A are bad luck and you should not step on them. In reality, these letters stand either for the specific foundry where they were forged, or the function of the specific pipeline the cover is over (i.e.: drain intersection, wastewater, valve, district heating etc.).
Covers that bring good luck (that being friendship or love) have simple rules: you either step on one for love and shout out the name of your crush, or you step on one for friendship along with your best friend. As you have probably already guessed, this is mostly a game played by children, particularly children who identify as girls or female. When it comes to the bad luck covers, the meanings are more varied and have also changed considerably over the years. I would even go so far as to say that they reflect some of the more common issues or fears of their contemporary time such as unemployment or STDs.
The most common superstitions regarding bad luck are translated as ‘never love’ or ‘interrupted love’ (75 out of 400 replies in a survey), implying that you could even use a manhole cover to break up with someone. Just stand on a cover with the letter A and your partner should get the message! However, other unlucky symbolisms pertained to envy, loathing, an abyss, a warning, unemployment and being fired, corporal punishment, and a farewell – and these could be found up until the 1980s. Curiously, in the 80s and 90s there was a rise of associations with sexual connotations and various mental health issues such as alcoholism, anorexia, abortion, and a common STD-related fear of the time: AIDS. This seemed to have been partly due to the social impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s, but also due to the popular Swedish film Show Me Love from 1998. This film strongly impacted Scandinavian culture in the late 90s and includes a scene of a manhole cover superstition, showing that to neutralise an A cover you either must find a K cover, or someone could tap you three times on your back. You could try to do that yourself but according to the lore, it would be less effective.
Though Sweden is not the only Scandinavian country with a fear of manhole covers – in fact, according to the NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), avoiding to step on manhole covers is the number one compulsion amongst the Norwegian population. I can personally confirm that this was a game we played when I went to primary school in Norway, and from my research it seems to be a superstition that stuck with many into adulthood. Although, some still avoid them more on the basis that they are scared that they could fall into the sewer! In Norway, the lore isn’t a hundred percent the same as in Sweden, although there are some similarities. Instead of A and K covers, it is more common to have numbers on them, and the ones with the number 40 are bad luck. Just like the Swedes, most Norwegians believe that tapping someone three times on the back will get rid of the bad luck. As far as I can remember and have researched, the bad luck is not limited to love. A friend of mine could recall that stepping on a 40 cover meant for instance that you would break your leg. Looking back on that time, I think there were also some numbers that symbolised general good luck, and I believe they were either 25 or 60, but I might be wrong!
But why 40, you might ask? Well, I believe it is because they were the most common. 40 stands for ’40 tons’ and that just meant that the cover had been made to withstand that weight, since this is the minimum weight for any roads with cars or vehicles. With covers depicting the number 40 being bad luck, it was a difficult game to find the actually lucky ones! Through a Norwegian Facebook post about superstition, I found that the fear of manhole covers was at least as common as black cats and Friday the 13th , if not more.
Finally, let’s look at the United Kingdom. In the UK, luck doesn’t seem to depend on what is depicted on the cover or drain, but how many of these there are in a row. If you step on three covers in a row that’s bad luck, and you must either spit on them, walk over them backwards or cross the road and walk on that side until you encounter a double cover (see Figures 2 and 3)! I was not aware of this belief until I started researching it and earlier this year I had the opportunity to kind of test this superstition myself. On my way to a job interview, I happened to step on a triple drain. Because I was raised in Norway, and I was of course nervous for my interview, I did not immediately think of any superstitions as I stepped on these. I had simply never associated these covers to the beliefs I grew up with because they look nothing like the round covers I was used to (see figure 1)! But, because I was writing this post, I suddenly remembered they were related, and that got me a little bit worried! I didn’t want any bad luck for my interview, so of course I tried to rationalise it and thought: “Well, I am Norwegian so this UK cover superstition doesn’t count for me!” – and I kept on walking. But I couldn’t help myself to keep an eye out to look for a double cover. Surely enough, before I reached my destination, I found one, stepped on it, and the interview went well as I actually got the job in the end!
So, there you have it! These superstitions about manhole covers might be more of a children’s game, but they may also reflect social fears of previous decades, as well as persisting urban fears of the unknown as obviously no one wants to fall down into a sewer should they step on a loose cover! Alligators or not, that sounds like a terrible day!
Hildegunn is an artist, folklorist, writer and lecturer with a special interest in the folkloric representation of disease, medical art and mental health awareness. They are currently working on several private projects related to both writing and art. You can find more information about Hildegunn at https://hildegunnmstraa.com/ – and on Instagram @hildiestroemseng_art, or @melancholic_artlady for mental health awareness.