Halloween Fashion History: Costumes & Decorations of Yesteryear

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find Halloween inspirations from costumes and decorations of yesteryear.

They say that what once was old, is new again. That may be true in many cases but—judging from photos in historical newspapers—not with Halloween costumes.

To be truly original this year, think about going retro!

Spirit of Hallowe'en, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper photo 29 October 1922

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 29 October 1922, page 27

If the Halloween fashions that follow don’t unlock your creative spirit, search historical newspapers for your own costume inspirations. There are many, many illustrations of Halloween costumes and holiday decorations of yesteryear.

Search Tip: widen your Halloween search with these variant spellings: Hallow’een, Hallowe’en, Hallow E’en, All Hallow’s Eve, Holly Eve, and Holler Eve.

Early 20th Century Children’s Costumes

The youth of a century ago were often presented in flowing gowns and distinctive hats, some pointy, some ruffled, and some reminiscent of specific eras.

photo of children wearing Halloween costumes, Oregonian newspaper article 31 October 1915

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 31 October 1915, page 14

This youngster’s hat is certainly distinctive!

photo of a child wearing a Halloween costume, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 October 1917

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 October 1917, page 11

Just as we see today, trick-or-treaters back then imitated characters from popular films. Long before Disney’s “Ariel” or Star War’s “Yoda,” this little girl dressed as the rage of her day: “Sis Hopkins.” She was the pigeon-toed character from Posey County, Indiana, immortalized in Rose Melville’s play. (See advertisement at Wikipedia.)

photo of a child wearing a Halloween costume, Baltimore American newspaper article 2 November 1922

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 2 November 1922, page 16

In 1900, you could attend a matinee performance of the “pastoral comedy hit” for 25 cents in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—and when Sis Hopkins was first released as a film in 1919, admission was still the same price.

ticket ads for "Sis Hopkins," Patriot newspaper advertisement 2 January 1900 & Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 1 January 1919

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 2 January 1900, page 5 (left); Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 1 January 1919, page 12 (right)

Other Halloween costumes in the early 1900s reflected earlier times in America’s history. Notice how in 1920, Miss Lillian Gallway, a little Texan girl, was outfitted as a “soldierette” of Continental Days. As a genealogist, I would love to see trick-or-treaters knock on my door in outfits like hers.

photo of a child wearing a Halloween costume, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article 25 January 1920

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 25 January 1920, page 3

Classic Women’s Halloween Fashion: Pumpkin Attire

Pumpkins have always been in vogue—even adorning the top of hats and capes. This 1912 image’s caption reads:

“A jack-o’-lantern hat of crepe paper is the latest novelty for wear by the young lady who will attend the Hallowe’en eve festivities. The hat is topped by an imitation jack-o’-lantern and a fan of the same material to match.”

photo of a woman wearing a Halloween costume, Grand Rapids Press newspaper article 28 October 1912

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 28 October 1912, page 7

What a grand cape this woman wore in 1915! It was cut from orange-colored material and consisted of a long coat, skirt and pantalets edged with fur or marabou.

illustration of a woman wearing a Halloween costume, Plain Dealer newspaper article 26 October 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 October 1915, page 9

Early American Halloween Decorations & Activities

From goblins to witches, the costumes of yesteryear certainly have changed—and not only that, decorations and activities have varied as well. Here is a sampling to help you with this year’s Halloween party planning.

Why not set up a tub for apple bobbing, as these ladies enjoyed in 1903? The caption reads: “Diving for apples in a tub of water—one of the jolliest Halloween games.”

photo of women bobbing for apples on Halloween, Boston Journal newspaper article 18 October 1903

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 18 October 1903, section 2, page 1

Stencils are always popular, so try applying antique styles, such as these from 1911, to your windows.

Halloween stencils, Plain Dealer newspaper article 29 October 1911

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 October 1911, page 52

This article from 1916 presents ideas for Halloween plans. Pumpkin favors, black cats, chrysanthemum favors and noise makers “for the parade” only cost 10¢.

illustration of Halloween costumes and decorations, Plain Dealer newspaper article 15 October 1916

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 October 1916, page 11

Old Halloween Customs

Lastly, think about adopting the interpretive customs and activities of your ancestors.

Are you of Scottish ancestry? Did you know they used to burn nuts, thought to be charms, at Halloween? The method of this old custom is described in this newspaper article from 1855.

description of Halloween custom in Scotland, Daily Ohio Statesman newspaper article 4 November 1855

Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 4 November 1855, page 1

Perhaps you have Mexican ancestry. This article about “Old Mexico and Hallow ’Een” depicts a Halloween parade and reports that:

“People in the States can not form any adequate idea—save from personal observation—of what ‘Hallow Eve’ means to all classes of Mexicans. For three days and nights commencing on that night of mystery and spells, the entire population completely abandons itself to feasting and frolicking, rejoicing and making merry.”

Old Mexico and Hallow'een, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 25 October 1896

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 October 1896, page 25

And if you are truly of early American stock, perhaps you should greet this year’s little goblins and princesses as a Colonial Dame, as recommended in 1913 “for dainty maidens who have been invited to a Halloween party.”

The news article provides these suggestions:

“Any brocaded or flowered material may be used for the pannier, while plain pink or blue or lavender should be used for the underskirt. The hair should be dressed high with curls and powdered, and a long stick with ribbons may be carried to complete this charming effect.”

illustration of a woman wearing a Halloween costume, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 26 October 1913

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 26 October 1913, page 28

In lieu of hand-dipped candles, do consider a set of electric candles to adorn your ring lantern. They are a lot less flammable!

Have a good time exploring old newspapers for Halloween inspirations from history. I hope you and your family have a fun Halloween!

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Written by Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak, MBA, brings to the GenealogyBank Blog a blend of technical and genealogical research skills. In addition to having been a columnist with RootsWeb Review, she was president of a computer training/consulting firm for 15+ years, worked as an editor and has authored several genealogy books. You’ll find her an active contributor to a variety of online forums, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, Findagrave.com and indexing projects.

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