Excerpt of an article written by Seleena M. Kuester, 2012. ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!
The end of the nineteenth century and first few decades of the twentieth century are considered by many to be the “Golden Age” of Halloween celebrations in the United States. Before the advent of trick-or-treating as we know it, the Victorians and their successors enjoyed hosting and attending Halloween parties, complete with seasonal decorations, festive foods, homemade costumes and a variety of games and stunts. Cheap and plentiful paper decorations and craft materials put out by companies like the Dennison Manufacturing Company made decorating the home for a Halloween party easy and affordable.
In October of 2011, Primrose Farm, a 1930s living history farm in St. Charles, Illinois, decided to host its own period Halloween party as a public program. The program was not based on any real-life event known to have occurred at the farm. It was developed to be fun and educational, designed to connect participants with the past through a familiar holiday. The program took the shape of a 1930s children’s Halloween party, with period decorations, foods, games and activities. This article outlines the process and resources used to create this party, in the hope that interpreters and program planners at other sites can use it as a guide to develop their own “Golden Age” Halloween program.
Decorations and Costumes
Based on research, the decorations were a combination of store-bought and homemade. As guests approached the summer kitchen, they were greeted by a candle-lit jack-o-lantern peering through the window. Inside, the room was lit with a combination of kerosene lamps and a reproduction 1930s Halloween lantern. Around the room hung a few reproduction die-cuts of jack-o-lanterns and skeletons. These types of widely available decorations were made by companies such as Beistle and Dennison. In addition, decorative swags made from crepe paper streamers and cut-outs of black cats, inspired by the Dennison’s Bogie books, adorned the windows.
Guests were invited to wear costumes to the party. The hostess wore a 1930s day dress with the addition of a festive black and orange crepe paper apron and crepe paper beanie, both handmade. Crepe paper costumes were heavily marketed by the Dennison, which sold a wide variety of crepe paper as well as costume patterns.
Food and Games
Since refreshments were being served to the public, the menu was simple and consisted of donuts and hot apple cider. Black and orange paper napkins and plates were provided for the donuts while teacups from the farm held the cider. The table centerpiece was a variation on a Jack Horner Pie, a decorative container filled with party favors or fortunes for each guest.
A variety of fortune-telling games, popular at Halloween parties until more recent times, were the highlight of the evening. These included a game in which the player took a spoonful of dried corn kernels from a bowl. He or she then counted out the pieces in a spoon to a chant that listed out various professions. The profession called out on the last kernel predicted the player’s fate. Having obsolete period professions in the mix provided a quick history lesson for guests, as well as some laughs.
This type of program could be adapted to a range of living history settings and modified to accommodate larger groups. Rather than offer the party as a public program requiring advance registration with participant limits, it could be offered as part of daily interpretation or as a special event. A vintage Halloween party can provide a fun and familiar setting from which to explore the past.
This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Kuester, Seleena M. “How to Host an Early Twentieth-Century Halloween Party.” ALHFAM Bulletin, Volume XLII, No. 3 (Fall 2012): 12-16.
1 Diane C. Arkins, Halloween Merrymaking: An Illustrated Celebration of Fun, Food and Frolics from Halloweens Past (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2004), 9.