Halloween in the U.S.A., a photo exploration

Halloween in the U.S.A., a photo exploration

As October comes to a blustery end, spooky season’s ultimate eve creeps closer…and closer.

Halloween, the holiday that nightmares are made of, has a long history in the United States — though, how the day is celebrated has shifted over the years to accommodate new traditions, crafting the billion dollar industry as we now know it.

In honor of All Hallows’ Eve, we’ve bobbed into public archives to search for ghosts of Halloween past.

Pumpkins

Student carving a Halloween pumpkin, 1966 or 1967. Photo: Roy Erickson.
Student carving a Halloween pumpkin, 1966 or 1967. Photo: Roy Erickson.
Carved pumpkins, 1987. Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida.

Beginnings: The tradition of cutting spooky figures into root vegetables finds its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain, during which faces would be carved into turnips in order to ward off spirits that might take up residence in homes. Carried over by Irish immigrants, the creation of jack-o-lantern pumpkins became popular in the United States starting in the late 1800’s. By the 1920s, sacrificing pumpkins for the sake of whimsical (and sometimes frightening) decor was all the rage.

 

Trick-or-Treating and Costumes

Girl dressed as a witch for Halloween, 1972. Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida.
Girl dressed as a witch for Halloween, 1972. Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida.

Ghouls and sugar: While it may seem like a time-honored American tradition now, modern trick-or-treating didn’t hit the mainstream until the 1920s, though it was curtailed for a while by the Great Depression. Like the carved turnips of yore, dressing as a frightful sight during the Halloween holiday also served as a precautionary measure against malicious demons during some celebrations of Samhain. The act of going from house to house to collect small offerings is thought to stem from the Middle-Ages, though the first record of the word “trick-or-treat” only dates back to 1927, when it appeared in a Canadian newspaper:

Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.

 

Parades! Parties!

Methodist Orphanage Halloween party, 1945. Photo: State Archives of North Carolina.
Methodist Orphanage Halloween party, 1945. Photo: State Archives of North Carolina.
Children's Halloween parade in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1987. Photo: American Folklife Center.
Children’s Halloween parade in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1987. Photo: American Folklife Center.

Mischief: Like carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating, Halloween parties gained traction in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Featuring elaborate decorations and costumes, the fetes were popular with adults. But as mischief increased, so too did community desperation. Parties, parades and haunted houses offered safe-havens and the promise of distracting the youth.

 

Spooky Appearances

House in West Virginia decorated for Halloween. Photo: Lyntha Scott Eiler.
House in West Virginia decorated for Halloween. Photo: Lyntha Scott Eiler.

A (very) brief history of popular holiday decor: Spooky skeletons, cobwebs, tombstones, witches: all fodder for the Halloween-hungry designer. Though these decorations can be found in yards and stores across the United States, the Pennsylvania-based Beistle Company helped popularize modern Halloween decor through its paper and crepe creations. And it wasn’t until 1958 that First Lady Mamie Eisenhower decorated the White House for the very first time.

 

More Halloween O’er the Years

Halloween visitors, 1979. Photo: William Smock.
Halloween party for the troops in Miami, Florida. Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida.
"Underwater Witch," 1950s. Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida.
“Underwater Witch,” 1950s. Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida.
Trick-or-treaters visit President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, 1963. Photo: John F. Kennedy Library.
Trick-or-treaters visit President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, 1963. Photo: John F. Kennedy Library.
Halloween cake recipe from "American Cookery" (1914). Photo: Boston Public Library.
Halloween cake recipe from “American Cookery” (1914). Photo: Boston Public Library.
Halloween party at Shafter migrant camp, California, 1938. Photo: Dorothea Lange.
Halloween party at Shafter migrant camp, California, 1938. Photo: Dorothea Lange.
Decorations in Cincinnati, Ohio, 2016. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith.
Decorations in Cincinnati, Ohio, 2016. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith.
Three boys carve pumpkins, 1917. Photo: Library of Congress.
Three boys carve pumpkins, 1917. Photo: Library of Congress.
A 1,425-pound pumpkin tableaux at the annual Pumpkinfest in Damariscotta, Maine. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith.
A 1,425-pound pumpkin tableaux at the annual Pumpkinfest in Damariscotta, Maine. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith.

Top Image: A rendition of Pennywise from Pumpkinfest, an annual fall festival in Damariscotta, Maine. Photo: Library of Congress.