Weird Old Figures and a New Twist: Cultural Functions of Halloween at the Turn of the 20th Century

TR Number
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Virginia Tech

Halloween arrived in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century with the surge in immigration from the British Isles — especially Ireland. However, the folk holiday did not gain widespread attention until the late 1870s and 1880s when descriptive pieces containing both accounts of Halloween's long history increasingly appeared in some newspapers and periodicals. Over the next couple decades, these descriptive pieces became more prescriptive, instructing women how to throw a "proper" Halloween party; what food to serve, games to play, and atmosphere to evoke. By the turn of the twentieth century and up through the 1920s, the middle-to-upper class — specifically women — adopted the holiday all across the country and characterized it with parties, decorative displays, and the propagation of literature, imagery, and ephemera.

Since Halloween had existed as an ethnic folk tradition in America for several decades, why and how did this particular group of Americans adopt — and adapt — Halloween to meet their needs? Which Halloween traditions did they retain and how did they shape the holiday for their own purposes? Finally, how did this particular celebration of Halloween reflect the interplay of certain values among these celebrants through literature, imagery, and ephemera? This study of Halloween asks what the celebration of holidays and rituals can tell us about the culture in which they are celebrated. By employing a method which gives equal weight to historical context, audience, and imagery, we gain valuable insight about the stratum of American society which made Halloween an American tradition.

Halloween, Holidays, Culture, Material Culture, Gender, Nostalgia, Antimodernism, Consumption, Commercialization