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!

1913 Halloween Prank Caused a Blast in Sheffield, Alabama

Every year around Halloween we hear of pranks ranging from harmless mischief to serious destruction.

The Halloween of 1913 in Sheffield, Alabama, was a little of both.

According to press reports, the destruction resulting from a Halloween prank gone awry was as much a surprise to the kids as it was to the town’s residents.

The kids’ plan was simple: they were going to load the town cannon with “several pounds of [gun]powder” and set it off at one o’clock in the morning.

It worked; the explosion was deafening.

As reported in the following Alabama newspaper article: “…the explosion shaking the [Sheffield Hotel] like an earthquake, in fact the guests thought it was an earthquake, and rolled out of their beds and room, scantily attired, rushing down into the lobby to ascertain the cause of the explosion.”

The cannon itself “…was thrown several hundred feet from the concrete foundation by the discharge.”

And the destruction from the prank was real: “All of the plate glass on the lower floor and all the window lights on the north side of the Sheffield Hotel…were broken and shattered.” The estimated damage was $1,000.

Hallowe'en Funmakers Cause Severe Damage, Montgomery Advertiser newspaper article 1 November 1913

Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), 1 November 1913, page 8

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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