While October 31 is a famous day of candy, costumes, and spooky Halloween decorations, the ghoulish holiday has evolved over the years from where it started. Have you every wondered why we really celebrate Halloween? You might also be curious as to how the custom of trick-or-treating came to be and which characters and themes were popular back in the day.
Believe it or not, there’s a lot of info about vintage Halloween you might not know, like the fact that party planning in the early 1920s would start as early as August, or that apple-bobbing emerged as a popular All Hallow’s Eve pastime (and superstitious matchmaking opportunity!). We took a look back at Halloween fads from within the past century. Whether you’re interested in learning about the haunted occasion the year you were born or just want to curb your Halloween curiosity, take a zombie crawl down memory lane with every tradition, fun fact, and pop culture inspiration that’s emerged from October 31. Ready for a spooky look back at the history of Halloween in America? Read on, if you dare.
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The holiday we know and love as Halloween got its roots from the Celtic festival of Samhain, during which folks would light bonfires as a way to ward off spirits before All Saint’s Day on November 1. Both Samhain and All Saint’s Day eventually began merging with All Souls’ Day, a day designed by the Catholic church in 1000 AD to honor the dead each November 2, when people dressed up as devils, angels, and saints. However, these Halloween traditions didn’t make their way to America until the second half of the 19th century, and the spooky affair went on to become synonymous with parties, parade, treats, and costumes.
You’re probably accustomed to buying your own Halloween costume every year, but up until the late 1940s, most holiday celebrators handmade their own creations. Today, market prices for vintage costumes in mint condition run the gamut from $75 to $1,500 for cartoon characters, television stars, or political subjects.
Some of the most sought-after Halloween collectibles? Vintage invitations and place cards. Most were tossed after use, making them incredibly rare. Because of this, a complete set of World War I–era die-cut invites by a paper purveyor like Dennison of Massachusetts can cost $200 to $300 if never addressed.
In 1919, Ruth Edna Kelley wrote The Book of Halloween, which still remains one of the greatest historic accounts of the holiday. Formatted with poems, games, and folklore, it’s a must-read for anyone wanting to get the full Halloween backstory up to the modern era.
Halloween decoration–lovers, you can trace this popular American custom back to 1920 when Pennsylvania-based company Beistle Company introduced a hair-raising line of party goods that helped popularize the tradition.
Halloween parties gained major traction in the 1920s, reaching peak popularity in the ’30s. Planning for these elaborate fêtes would sometimes kick off as early as the summer before, usually in August.
“From 1909 through the ’30s, the Dennison Manufacturing Company published Halloween-themed craft and party idea books called Bogie Books,” says Halloween antique expert Bruce Elsass. One such popular Halloween prop inspired by the books was a pumpkin parade stick, which was originally lit by a candle and carried by children while trick-or-treating.
By the 1920s, Halloween had become synonymous with mischief, which young people used as an excuse to break windows or damage property. In 1923, the police chief commissioner in Omaha, Nebraska, went so far as to designate the city’s “worst boys” as junior police officers on October 31 and relied on them to report criminal behavior in an attempt to curb vandalism.
Communities continued to go to great lengths in order to prevent petty crimes on Halloween night. In 1924, for example, an announcement in the Chicago Tribune from Oct. 29 advertised a party at the Chicago Boys’ Club so that youngsters could “enjoy themselves without destroying property or playing pranks on their neighbors.”
Halloween party guests in the 1920s enjoyed games like a pumpkin ring toss as a form of good old-fashioned entertainment. Apple bobbing was also a popular pastime—one lost tradition on October 31 even involved women secretly marking the apples before throwing them in the tub for men to “bob” for; future matches were foretold depending on the apple each lad chose.
The first known printed reference to “trick-or-treat” appeared in the Alberta Canada Herald on Nov. 4, 1927, according to Smithsonian.
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds caused mass panic among listeners who believed Earth really had been invaded by Martians.
As fashion began to evolve and leg-baring became more common, so did Halloween costumes. Here, three actresses dressed as “girls on the farm” bob for apples.
If you picked up a copy of the Sears catalogue in the fall of 1958, you’d see that kids could choose from an array of costumes including a a gypsy, a Colonial girl, a robot, a bride, and a fairy princess, as well as characters from TV shows, like Lassie, Popeye, Bugs Bunny, and Zorro. Pictured here, actress Jayne Mansfield and her husband, Mickey Hargitay, celebrate daughter Jayne Marie’s birthday with a Halloween fête in 1958.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that a show named Bewitched would have the best Halloween episodes. The Halloween episode in the fourth season of the beloved show saw Samantha and Tabitha trick-or-treating—with the help of three ghouls.
A year after divorcing husband Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee (who was 26 at the time) bounced back with a Halloween-themed photo shoot at Universal Studios.
The ’70s were an eventful decade for Halloween candy. In the first half, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups became so popular that Hershey Food Corporation had to double production in order to meet global demand. Meanwhile, Laffy Taffy was introduced in 1971, and Bubble Yum was introduced in 1975.
The costumes of the ’70s were simple, affordable, and stress-free. They typically consisted of a full-face mask and a plastic smock—like the ones seen here—and the whole thing came ready to wear, in a box. Popular picks during this decade included Wonder Woman, Raggedy Ann, and Barbie.
On December 26, 1973, The Exorcist hit theaters, horrifying audiences everywhere. The movie—which went on to become one of the highest-grossing films ever—was so disturbing that theaters distributed “Exorcist barf bags.” Still to this day, the film is often regarded as one of the scariest movies ever made.
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released on October 1, 1974, quickly becoming everyone’s worst nightmare. The intensely brutal film spawned a film franchise, and Leatherface, the film’s villain, is still a common costume today. Also in 1974, puppeteer Ralph Lee started the famous Village Halloween Parade in New York City.
In the ’70s, Junior Chamber International (Jaycees) clubs became known for encouraging members to stage haunted houses in abandoned buildings as a way to raise money. In 1975, Jaycees Jim Gould and Tom Hilligoss of the Bloomington, Illinois, chapter, wrote a book about how to create a haunted house, making them the world’s first haunted house staging experts.
Televised variety specials were popular during the 1970s, so it’s no wonder that the decade saw its fair share of Halloween variety shows. Airing on ABC, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special was nothing short of bizarre, at least by today’s standards. How strange was it? Let’s just say special guests included Betty White, Florence Henderson, and heavy metal rock band KISS.
In 1977, no costumes were more coveted than those inspired by Star Wars. Ben Cooper Inc. was one of the first licensees of the guises, and they quickly sold out, leading to what some called the “Great Star Wars Halloween Costume Shortage” of 1977. This led many Star Wars fanatics to resort to homemade get-ups.
The knife-wielding Michael Myers made his film debut on October 25, 1978 in Halloween. The movie went on to become a lengthy film franchise. As you’d expect, Mike Myers’s navy blue jumpsuit and white mask can still be found in costume stores today.
The second half of the decade marked the beginning for some of today’s most popular Halloween sweets. Jelly Belly beans were introduced in 1976, and the Ring Pop was invented in 1979. That same year, the Twix candy bar, already popular around the world, was introduced to candy lovers in the U.S.
The Shining, one of Jack Nicholson‘s most well-known films, was released this year. The film is still considered one of the scariest of all time, and the Grady twins went on to inspire Halloween costumes for years to come.
In the early ’80s, masks remained a popular Halloween choice, especially masks of Ronald Reagan, who became president in 1981.
This year saw the release of two terrifying movies that became horror classics: The Poltergeist and The Thing.
Wes Craven’s The Nightmare on Elm Street was released on November 9, 1984. The horror film introduced the masses to one of Halloween’s most popular villains, Freddie Krueger.
Offering some insight into what Halloween was like during the ’80s, this vintage Halloween safety video taught kids all about the dos and don’ts of October 31. Narrated by an animated pumpkin, the video covered everything from carving pumpkins to avoiding creepy strangers.
Children line up outside Park Will Elementary in Denver, waiting for their Halloween parade to start. While many schools staged Halloween parades at school during the ’80s and ’90s, the tradition has come under fire in more recent years due to concerns about students being left out due to religious or cultural beliefs.
The desire to turn anything and everything into a pumpkin isn’t anything new. The Union Oil Company began painting their Torrance, California, petroleum storage tank to look like a pumpkin in the 1950s. Shown here nearly two decades later, it has remained a fixture in the area.
The Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF tradition dates back to the ’50s. Here, children dance at one of the nonprofit’s annual Halloween fundraising drives in 1988, where over $2 million was raised to help children in developing countries—a big leap from the program’s inaugural year, which collected $17.
Celebrating Halloween at the White House is a tradition that dates back to 1958 when Mamie Eisenhower put up decorations for the first time. In 1989, the Bushes hosted a Halloween party for 600 schoolchildren.
Therapy dog programs become widespread in hospitals such as the Torrance Memorial Medical Center, which launched their Pet Assisted Therapy program this year. While specially trained dogs visit patients each year, Halloween is extra-special, because the pups dress in costume.
A Halloween blizzard covered the Midwest with snow from October 31st to November 3rd in 1991. Of course, not even harsh weather could keep trick-or-treaters inside!
If you have one of these pumpkin pails from McDonald’s sitting around your home, it probably dates back to the early ’90s. The MicWitch and McGhost were first introduced in 1990, but went through a few updates in the following years.
Ever since this now-classic Tim Burton movie premiered in 1993, there’s been debate about whether it was intended to be a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie. But in 2015, Henry Selick, the movie’s director, spoke up to settle the debate. “It’s a movie about Halloween, and the people of Halloween, and how they react to something like Christmas,” he explained.
At first, the internet was used to send files from one computer to another. But in 1991, communication as we know it changed forever: The World Wide Web was introduced as a platform for ideas to be exchanged. Soon after, e-commerce picked up, giving us an easier way to shop for Halloween costumes and party decorations.
The movie Scream, which premiered on December 20, 1996, would go on to inspire one of the most popular costumes of the decade.
Katie Couric, Al Roker, Ann Curry, and Matt Lauer show off their Halloween costumes on set of the TODAY show.
If you went to a Halloween party in 1999, you definitely spotted at least one person dressed in Britney’s signature school girl costume, complete with knee-high socks.
Crowds gathered at the Halloween Bash 2000 Car Show in Pasadena to see The Munster Koach, which was featured in the popular TV show, The Munsters.
The Ring, one of the most popular and iconic horror movies ever, was released this year.
While risqué costumes are nothing new, the movie Mean Girls ridiculed their popularity when the main character Cady realizes she is the only girl at her high school Halloween party not wearing lingerie.
Ellen DeGeneres cracked us up with a now-viral video that features her producer Andy Lassner and Modern Family star Eric Stonestreet touring a haunted house, a hysterical yearly tradition she started on her show back in 2012. The popular video now has over 8.6 million views.
Legendary scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the big screen as Laurie Strode to face off against Michael Myers once again. The new Halloween movie is a direct sequel to the original 1978 film, ignoring every other chapter in the franchise that has been released since.
As noted by Etsy resident trend expert Dayna Isom Johnson, 2019 Halloween partygoers are hopping on the “pretty scary” bandwagon, leaning toward more aesthetically pleasing costumes and decorations.
In a year that was anything but normal thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Halloween celebrations looked pretty different from normal. That included trick-or-treating, where a mask was the new can’t-miss accessory. Even so, the stalwart figure of Halloweens past—the witch—was still the most searched-for Halloween costume according to Google.
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