If I was marooned on an island that celebrated only one holiday, I sure hope it would be Halloween. Not only are the images the most fun of any holiday, but you get to pretend to be someone (or something) else, and instead of turkey or ham, you dine all day on candy.
But of course I’m talking about the old Halloween, when the emphasis was on children and community, and the night held a certain innocence. It was scary, but more fun-scary than scary-scary. All you needed for a good time was a sheet to put over your head and a pillowcase to haul your loot in.
Pumpkins have always been central to Halloween imagery and are just as comfortable being happy as they are mean. Date unknown.
Sometime in the last three decades, though, Halloween shifted to being an all-consumerism holiday, and adults took it over as an excuse to party. What once was a small section of kids’ costumes, candy corn, and a few simple items of make-up at the local Woolworth has turned into a Halloween Super Store complete with full-size coffins, professional costumes, and expensive lawn ornamentation so big I can finally understand why everyone needs a 4,500-square-foot house. I walk through Target this time of year and wonder, “Where do people store all this junk?”
Before everything for Halloween was made in China and judged on its scale, not its quality, manufacturers hired artists who depended on talent instead of batteries for their inspiration. A cardboard pumpkin, cat, or witch could only distinguish itself by style, not by its number of light-emitting diodes.
Cardboard cut-out black cat. It was produced before 1960 in the United States, though the exact date and location are unknown.
That’s not to say that Halloween past was free of gimmicks, or that all of Halloween present is without redeeming qualities. For anyone looking for it, there is plenty of inspiration in Halloween imagery, and the best designers continue to approach traditional icons with fresh ideas and new interpretations.
Cut-out cardboard moon, date unknown. The moon is still seen in some Halloween images today, but it usually lacks personality and is only a backdrop for more menacing silhouettes. The moon was more likely to be a starring Halloween character 40 years ago.
Art-deco cat face from Beistle [http://www.beistle.com], 1930s. This and several other images from the terrific book Vintage Halloween Collectibles (kp books, 2003) by Mark B. Ledenbach.
A Mishmash of Symbols
I suspect that most people know little about the symbols of Halloween other than that they seem to revolve around the ideas of the fall harvest and the dearly departed. You might vaguely remember reading about the Celts and their pagan tradition of Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween), which marked the beginning of Winter and was a time to honor the dead. (They were thought to make a transition to the afterworld at this time.) The night before Samhain was when there was the most activity among the spirits as they made one last attempt to mingle with the living before moving on. But the story of Halloween is more complex than just that.
As missionaries spread Christianity, they confronted the unusual rituals of the Celts (and many other “pagan” cultures), often without much conversion success. So in 601 AD, Pope Gregory the First dreamed up a clever idea, and from it comes our current bastardized version of the original Celt Samhain rituals.
Instead of trying to convince non-Christians that they must reject the icons and traditions held for generations, Pope Gregory instructed missionaries to embrace the beliefs of these groups and work them into Christian doctrine. If a culture worshiped a volcano or a tortilla, it didn’t matter. Missionaries simply put the spin of consecration on the icon so that now, when the former pagans prayed to the tortilla, they were actually praying to a Christian god (represented by the tortilla).
As part of this theory, the Catholic Church chose for its own religious holidays the same dates as the pagan ones. Christmas was designated as December 25th because it coincided with the winter solstice celebrated in many cultures. Similarly, the summer solstice became St. John’s Day, and the fall solstice (celebrated on November 1st), became All Hallows Day (All Holy Day) or All Saints Day.
In 1910, the word Hallowe’en was still a contraction of Hallow Eve, though don’t ask me exactly how (left). Ellen Chapsaddle illustrated the moon and black cat (right) in 1912.
Many of the original holiday traditions stuck around, some by pure will, and others because the Christians were able to spin them to suit their needs. Thus, because the Celts recognized supernatural deities on the evening of Samhain, the Church didn’t oppose the recognition, but it re-defined those deities as “evil,” “demonic,” and “malicious.” Celtic priests (who were called Druids) were labeled as “witches” by the Church.
Demons were pictured as nymphs, elves, pixies in 1911, when this black-and-white postcard was mailed.
So modern Halloween is a mishmash of pagan and Christian symbols and re-symbols: the happy dead; the evil dead; the anthropomorphic vegetables and fruit of the harvest; and the bad luck of black cats, mysterious owls, and menacing witches.
Two pumpkin and vegetable people from a series by Barton and Sponer, 1917.
From 1932 through the 1940s, Beistle made die-cut placards with Halloween themes. Here are four of the more vivid three-color images. The letterpress printing was crude, but it allowed for very bold colors and thick ink coverage.
People eventually wised up to the fact that lost souls and evil dead never actually showed up to consume the decorative cakes and other treats left out as appeasement. Rather than let all this good food go to waste, kids started dressing up like witches, skeletons, and ghosts in exchange for the loot. This practice, called “mumming,” is now what we call “trick or treating.” We’re still trying to appease the evil doers.
My own mumming experiences are among the highlights of my childhood. My father was pretty handy at make-up and costume construction. I have vague early memories of being a pirate, an Indian, and a hobo. When I got old enough that I probably should have stopped mumming entirely, I dressed as a politician (too hard to explain, but it was 1968 and a critical time in American politics) and as a cigarette smoker with a borrowed plastic cigarette from my mother, who was using it in an attempt to quit.
In those days, nearly every house in the suburb was lit up and families gave out full-size Snickers and Milky Way bars, not the cheesy bite-size versions popular today. I remember being photographed a lot, and being scared to go to the one creepy house on the block where the mean old lady (who was probably just very private) lived. She gave out marshmallows with cloves stuck in them, a treat we spent a lot of time criticizing.
In 1958 both Post and Kellogg promoted individual cereal boxes as the perfect Halloween treat. Had I received one, I would have left my mask on and grunted a muffled “Thanks,” but only because it was the polite response.
Fading Memories and Images
By the time I was a kid, most Halloween imagery was standard stuff: skeletons, pumpkins, witches, black cats, ghosts, and an occasional owl. They could be easily reproduced in two colors-black and orange-and were typically printed on heavy grey cardboard, which gave them an old look right out of the package.
Part of a pumpkin garland, most likely from the 1940s.
Full-color printing was still expensive in those days, so the little paper treat bags we all favored (more loot and an air of mystery) were very crudely printed from what looked like fifth-generation artwork.
This two-color Halloween era wasn’t for lack of good-quality printing capacity; it was a reflection of the mass-merchandising trend that had emerged throughout post-war America. By the 1960s when I was a little mummer, Halloween merchandise had become a commodity, and consumers were not willing to pay much for things considered purely decorative and/or disposable.
But orange-and-black weren’t always the colors of Halloween. During the Victorian period and through the turn of the twentieth century, Halloween was portrayed as a colorful, vibrant event. There was much more emphasis on the magical and fanciful, and on love. An old Halloween tradition says that if you walk down the stairs backwards, then look into a mirror, you’ll see the image of your true love. So during those times of civility and modesty, many Halloween wishes revolved around courtship and good luck.
Black cat and handset message from 1922 (top), and a romantic couple cheered on by frolicking vegetables (bottom). It’s hard to imagine it now, but Halloween was once a time of romance and true love.
A Victorian-era children’s image (top), date unknown, and a 1915 postcard from Stecher Doane (bottom). Most Halloween images during this era were positive, or at least the threat was portrayed as something easily defeated.
This was also a period when much more emphasis was placed on the harvest aspect of Halloween. I suppose it reflects our shift from an agrarian society to an industrial one, but the ghosts, goblins, and ghouls have definitely taken over. In 1910 you were much more likely to see dancing cucumbers, pumpkin men, carrot heads, and rutabaga babies, mostly in playful, if not mischievous, settings.
Halloween was once a time for dancing and gaiety, as shown in this 1909 image (top) of happy apples ready for bobbing and in the fanciful illustration (bottom) from UK publisher Valentine and Sons Publishing. This and several other images are from the excellent book Postmarked Yesteryear (Ten Speed Press, 2001) by Pamela E. Apkarian-Russel.
In 1908, postcard manufacturer Hugo B. Hotmann produced this series of Mr. and Mrs. Pumpkin images. Around this time, there were quite a few representations of people and animals with normal bodies and pumpkin heads.
The moon was also once a central figure of Halloween imagery, and if you live where you can still see a true harvest moon, you know why.
But moons and cucumbers and dancing ears of corn aren’t scary enough for today’s adrenaline junkies. We’ve allowed the gross to take over from the charming, and the heart-pounding to take over for innocent mischief. It’s not enough to use your mom’s lipstick to draw some fake blood on your cheek. Now you need a battery-operated pump to spew “authentic vampire blood” on your party mates.
In the many places I’ve lived as an adult, I’ve never been in a house that got many kids on Halloween (despite over-stuffed treat bags and a porch packed with flaming pumpkins). In Petaluma, California, where my wife and I live now, all the parents put their kids in the car and drive down to D Street, where all the big houses are. They literally bus them in, and the police have to direct traffic it’s that crowded.
So many things have changed, and I can’t say I blame parents for not wanting to let their kids go door-to-door in a neighborhood of mostly strangers. But it’s sad to me that the only neighborhood considered safe is the wealthy one. And that no one dresses like a dancing rutabaga or fiendish pickle anymore.
Happy Halloween. May your memories be vivid and wonderful.
This happy kitty Inky is a fuzzy flocked stand-up card from Norcross Inc., New York. It’s probably circa 1950s.
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