Princess, Gypsy or Hobo? A Look at Halloween Costume History

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—just in time for Halloween celebrations tonight—Gena searches old newspapers to look at the history of Halloween costumes.

What was Halloween like when you were a child? What Halloween costumes did you wear when you went trick-or-treating? For kids, Halloween is one of the best holidays, right up there with Christmas. With all the candy and parties it’s easy to see why children count it as a favorite holiday. When I was a child we rarely had store-bought Halloween costumes; instead we came up with our own costume creations that were a mishmash of clothes from my parents’ closets, makeup, and accessories.

Historical Costumes in Newspapers

Not sure what to dress up for this Halloween? Why not take a cue from old newspapers? Early 20th century newspapers have a lot of ideas for Halloween costumes.

In some cases, costume suggestions from newspaper articles incorporate Halloween symbols (ghosts, witches and pumpkins) but not necessarily dressing up as a particular character. Take this 1917 newspaper article, which provides a “pattern” for two Halloween costumes that can be made from crepe paper. The writer points out that crepe paper is a good solution for a costume since it is perfect for a temporary use but later warns that a “live boy and an entire paper costume do not go very well together.” I think most of us who have sons can identify with that.

Novel Hallowe'en Costumes Made Out of Crepe Paper Are Easy to Make and Use, Wyoming State Tribune newspaper article 9 October 1917

Wyoming State Tribune (Cheyenne, Wyoming), 9 October 1917, page 7

This fanciful 1903 newspaper article provides Halloween costume ideas for those attending a masquerade party. The masquerade costumes in this news article are much more complicated than the previous article’s crepe paper creations. The illustrations provide some ideas for the would-be Halloween partygoer, but the article describes even more—including costumes for those who want to dress as a favorite pastime (card playing or cooking are given as examples) or a famous historical or literary figure (such as Marie Antoinette, Madame Pompadour, Du Barry, Marie Stuart, Amy Robsart, Nell Gwynne, Juliet, Portia, or Rosalind).

Masquerade Costumes, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 18 October 1903

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 18 October 1903, page 2

Our Ancestors’ Halloween Costume

You probably wouldn’t think to search for an ancestor’s name and street address in an article about Halloween events—but that’s just the type of gem you can find in old newspapers. Consider this lengthy 1922 newspaper article. It tells about the thousands enjoying Halloween festivities, including a costume contest with numerous names of winners, their street addresses, and what they won (largely produce or “live poultry”). The only thing missing from the majority of this list are the winners’ costumes. Wouldn’t it be great to find out that your great-grandmother won a pig in a Halloween costume contest?

Thousands Enjoy Hallowe'en in Wilkes-Barre, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader newspaper article 1 November 1922

Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), 1 November 1922, page 14

While it is not unusual to find newspaper articles with lists of the names of people attending Halloween gatherings, the occasional historical costume photo also shows up. Here’s a 1922 photo that loses something in the translation; it is of partygoers dressed as “pretty dancers” who decorated themselves with Spanish Moss from Jacksonville and “appropriate Halloween decorations.”

Pretty Dancers at Halloween Party, Baltimore American newspaper article 29 October 1922

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 29 October 1922, page 14

Halloween Pranks & the Police

Once you have decided on a costume and firmed up your Halloween plans, make sure that you have fun in moderation. My friend who is a police officer talks about how Halloween is one of his least favorite times to work because of all the pranks and trouble caused by those who hide under the cover of darkness and a well-placed mask. By reading old newspapers you can see that mischievousness and mayhem isn’t just a modern Halloween problem. Consider this police warning from 1928.

Police to Halt Rough Stuff on Halloween Night; Warning by Mayor Asks Order in Fun, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 31 October 1928

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 31 October 1928, page 15

However you choose to celebrate Halloween this 2013, have a safe and fun night! Happy Halloween to you and yours!