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This Is How Americans Celebrated Halloween In The Early 20th Century

1900s | October 25, 2019

While it's always been a little spooky and a lot of fun, Halloween hasn't always looked the way it does now. Dressing up and carving pumpkins has always been a part of the American tradition, but it's only recently that elaborate costumes, organized trick-or-treating, and haunted mazes have become a thing. There are a lot of different traditions that made up Halloween in the early 20th century, many of which began regionally but have since bled into the rest of the country. Some of them have only been slightly altered, while others have disappeared altogether. Let's get spooky. 

Most people made their Halloween costumes by hand

Source: (youtube.com)

Today, you can just pop on down to your local costume shop or Halloween store to buy whatever costume your heart desires, be it a sexy gremlin or a masked slasher. Until the late 1940s, however, pickings were decidedly slimmer. Leaving aside the fact that Halloween was still somewhere between Mardi Gras and Arbor Day on the list of significant holidays, there was a war on, for Pete's sake. They couldn't go around wasting valuable material so you could look like a dumb ghost. Rather than purchase a Halloween costume, trick-or-treaters had to create their own costumes out of whatever was handy, be it papier-mâché or muslin. Some of the earliest mass-produced costumes were made by companies like A.S. Fishbach and Ben Cooper.

Paper Halloween decorations were popularized in the 1920s

Source: (pinterest.com)

Today, families combine their love of decorating with their hatred of their neighbors by arranging mutilated dummies, foam spiders, and all other manner of terror in their front yards. The race to create elaborate nightmarescapes began in the 1920s with the release of a line of party goods by the Pennsylvania-based Beistle Company.

As Halloween parties moved into the home, Beistle's paper cats, cauldrons, and witches became an annual tradition that let homemakers decorate their houses with spooky, card-stock creations. The early decorations would still be eye-catching additions to any Halloween party.

Bobbing for apples

Source: (blogspot.com)

One Halloween tradition that's faded from many modern celebrations is bobbing for apples, a simple game in which guests dunk their heads into a vat of apples floating in water and attempt to grab a piece of fruit with their teeth. In some versions of the game, partygoers' hands are tied behind their backs before they chomp into apples tied to a string.

Bobbing for apples didn't start as a Halloween tradition. It was actually part of the courting process in Europe hundreds of years ago. The practice eventually died out everywhere except for Ireland, where it became a part of Celtic fall traditions. When the Irish and Scottish immigrated to America in the early 20th century, they brought this tradition (along with many others) with them. Unfortunately, the practice has all but disappeared from modern Halloween celebrations.

The pumpkin parade stick

Source: (pinterest.com)

If you started trick-or-treating anytime after the 1950s, it's likely that you've never heard of a pumpkin parade stick. In the early 20th century, Halloween parades were incredibly popular, taking place everywhere from small towns to big cities. To help light up the night as well as draw attention to the fact that there was a little trick-or-treater walking around, these sticks with jack-o'-lantern bobbles on top could be lit by a candle while the user knocked on doors in search of candy or walked the streets in an after-dark parade.

Halloween parades were a large part of early celebrations

Source: (anoka halloween)

If a Halloween parade sounds like total chaos to you, then you've figured out exactly why they're not as popular anymore. In the early 1920s and '30s, trick-or-treaters swarmed the main streets of cities big and small to revel in the mischievous nature of the evening, but as things got more out-of-hand, the police started cracking down on revelers wearing masks out of fear that they would attempt to use the evening as a cover for all manner of crime. In 1930, Baltimore City Police Commissioner Charles D. Gaither created a set of guidelines for that year's event, which read in part:

No. 1 on the list of rules and regulations is no masks. This applies to clowns, harlequins, columbines, cowboys, Colonial Dames, Mexicans, spooks, skeletons, soldiers, sailors and marines. It applies, in fact, to anyone and everyone.

As cities started cracking down on party people taking to the streets in masks and often holding objects that could be weapons, people started taking their Halloween celebrations into the home. 

Kids weren't always trick-or-treating for candy

Source: (pinterest.com)

Today, Halloween candy is big business. Companies start rolling out specialty items at expensive prices, and cutthroat trick-or-treaters go to the best neighborhoods to increase their chances at that king-size Snickers, but trick-or-treaters in the '30s and '40s weren't getting this kind of treatment. Instead, they received whatever their target had lying around the house, from coins to toys and even fruit. It wasn't until the 1950s that candy companies introduced Halloween-specific treats for the kids. On top of marketing candy to kids, Kellogg's attempted to make mini-cereal snack packs a Halloween tradition by offering "sweet treats for little kids." Try handing out a box of cereal to a group of trick-or-treaters today, but make sure you've got some industrial-strength cleaner to wash all the eggs off your siding first.

Mischief nights used to terrify parents

Source: (time.com)

In the early 1920s and '30s, communities across New England and in various parts of the United States took part in what was colloquially referred to as "Mischief Night," "Devil's Night," or even "Goosey Night," an evening for young people to go around causing havoc on the night before Halloween. A major part of this pre-Halloween celebration was a vandalism spree that included everything from letting animals out of their pens to tipping over outhouses. These celebrations mostly took place in bigger cities, and Devil's Night is still a popular way to spend October 30 in Detroit. As families moved to the suburbs, however, these kinds of nights died down.

Tags: 1900s | America | Halloween

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.