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Lesley Bannatyne Articles


Halloween in Victorian America

c. Lesley Bannatyne

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Lesley Bannatyne

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All superstitions are foolish. To fasten a horseshoe to the door to procure good-luck, or to throw salt over the shoulder to prevent it; to be glad to have first seen a new moon over the right; or sad to be sitting 13 at table; to turn twice around before setting out a second time; to frame a mental wish after speaking simultaneously the same words with another, are practices unworthy of our day, making children of grown people and fools of boys and girls. Religion is one thing; superstition another. The two are opposites. The former pays honor to God; the latter does homage to Ignorance.

--"Legends and Superstitions," St. Nicholas Magazine, November I874

Halloween made its debut into proper American society circa the 1870s. Although by then Halloween superstitions and conjuring existed among many ethnic groups, the holiday was most often viewed as the quaint practice of the Scottish and English.

Articles summarizing the genesis of Halloween found their way into the media through brief "historical" pieces published in children's and ladies' periodicals. Newspapers in the Northeast and South carried similar articles (mostly in the 1880s and 1890s). In the fiction of the time Halloween was often presented as a holiday brought to America by the northem English and preserved by the upper classes in New England. Its practice was not necessarily encouraged, but Halloween did receive enough column space to satisfy a readership eager for "new" ancient rituals, queer historical facts and romance.

One of the first mentions of Halloween appears in Godey' s Lady's Book in October of 1872:

HALLOWE'EN--Time in its ever-onward course, has once more brought us to the month in which this festival occurs. About the day itself there is nothing in any wise peculiar or worthy of notice, but since time almost immemorial All Hallow Eve, or Hallow-een, has formed the subject theme of fireside chat and published story.

The author of this article reluctantly provides his readers with a synopsis of the holiday as described in Robert Bums' "Hallowe'en" (1786, a poem in the Scottish dialect that describes in great detail the divination rites and images of Halloween in Scotland), concluding that the celebration is simply an ethnic one "amongst the old-style English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh residents":

Amongst the American people but little other sport is indulged in than the drinking by the country folk, of hard cider, and the masticating of indigestible "crullers," or "doughnuts." The gamlins make use of the festival to batter down panels, dislocate bell-wires, unhinge gates, destroy cabbage patches, and raise a row generally.

If the destructive element of Halloween was distasteful to Victorians, its Irish history was probably eqyally so. Strong anti-Catholic editorials were published in Harper's Weekly as late as 1875. The upper classes preferred to remember that their ancestors in Northern England or Scotland, rather than thousands of Irish Catholic immigrants, brought Halloween to America, and that All Saints' Day was an Episcopalian religious day rather than a Catholic one.

Over the next 30 years Episcopal All Saints' Day celebrations grew more public and more popular. Although the Catholic church celebrated All Saints' Day in accordance with its years of history and heritage, it simply did not receive as much acknowledgment in the press. As a result, vast numbers of American readers came to understand All Saints' Day as Episcopalian in origin. (lt is no wonder, given the nature of the editors of many periodicals and papers at this time, that a large group of independent Irish and African-American newspapers suddenly began to appear in the cities.) In the South, Episcopalian All Saints' Day celebrations were reported to the general public, calling to mind descriptions of Halloweens in the churchyards of small Welsh or Irish villages. An Atlanta newspaper noted in 1895:

The Episcopalians in the city will observe All Saints' Day this year with special devotional services, which will be conducted at 10 in the moming. . .when prayers will be offered for the souls of the faithful and departed. The names of the faithful of these parishioners who have died within the past year will be read in the churches and more especially for the rest of their souls will the prayers be offered. The Episcopalians of the city usually take great interest in the observance of this day and it is expected that large congregations will attend the services.(1)

The Victorian middle classes emulated the upper classes, and the periodicals they both were offered often reflected the feelings of old New England stock. On the other hand, history was remembered differently in cities such as Boston or Chicago, where many Irish made their homes. In the Boston Daily Globe of October 31, 1884, Halloween was given a rare good notice by an Irish joumalist in an article entitled "Why Thousands Will Think of Erin Tonight.":

To be sure it is a fast night, as is customary on the eve preceding great holidays of the church, but in the evening it is one which, like our own New England Fast day, knocks all religious or pious canons into smithereens as the lads and lasses enter into the fast and furious fun of its time-honored observance.

This is the season there when the well-to-do country cousins send to their relatives in the towns presents of the richest products of the farm, much of them intended for the components of the savory and hearty Colcannon feast. . .Occasionally parties of young men and their sweethearts made the rounds of the houses of their relatives and friends on Halloween, participating in the fun and all joining at the residence of some one favored with a dwelling of more suitable size for the accommodation of those participating in the fun and Fast day feasting.

The Recasting of Halloween

Children's magazines printed pretty pictures of fairies and witches; ladies' periodicals became concerned with how a Halloween party was given--decorating ideas, what foods to serve, how to break the ice. In 1881, St. Nicholas Magazine intoned a death knell for the old-world "authentic" holiday: ".. .belief in magic is passing away, and the customs of AII-hallow Eve have arrived at the last stage; for they have become mere sports, repeated from year to year like holiday celebrations."

Halloween celebrations in the Victorian age seem to be made of one part romantic inspiration, one part reconstructed history, and one part Victorian marketing. Halloween stories became almost operatic with regard to passion, and less concemed with actual ghosts. In and amongst the stories offered to female readers, which had such titles as "Love's Seed-time and Harvest," "Love Lies A-Bleeding" and "If I Were a Man I'd Shoot Myself," lie gems like "The Hallow-e'en Sensation at Gov'ner Dering's." In this tale the heroine is determined to live loveless because she believes the man she loves does not care for her. She takes up a dare to go into a dark, secret passage on Halloween night.

A l'inconnu! [To the unknown!] Dear friends, wish me God-speed. If I retum as I go, love-lorn and alone, then do I pronounce the promises of Hallow-e'en a false mockery and dedicate myself to works of charity for the remainder of my life; should I, however, attain that which I seek, should I discover a shadow that will lend me to a solution of this mystery, then to him shall be consecrated the self-will and obstinacy and obedience and--love--of Charlotte Ganett!! (2)

The lady disappears, the guests grow fearful, but then the hero climbs into the dark after her, finding her frail form crumpled and faint from a fall. Love ensues; Halloween triumphs.

The historical divination games of Halloween were often used by Victorian storytellers as devices to shuffle their lovers together. (Most of these divinations were likely taken directly from the extraordinarily popular and widely reprinted Burns poem; his "Halloween" featured extensive notes that described how to perform each of the rituals he described.) Heroines ate apples at midnight on Halloween while looking in a mirror for the face of a future husband. They followed balls of unwound yarn to dark barns and cellars, falling helplessly into the arms of some gallant hero. They cooked dumb suppers, attended raging, romantic bonfires, put nuts on grates and even bobbed for apples. As evidenced by another "ladies' magazine" tale, Halloween was but an excuse, a background, for passion unleashed in the dark of night:

Ethel: (alone) Oh, my lost, my unknown lover! When I entered upon the duties of a hospital reader, how little I thought that they were to bring me in contact with the greatest happiness and misery of my life! (tuming out the lights)

(Clock strikes twelve. Ethel takes the apple and walks toward the mirror.

Door opens and a gentleman, covered with snow, enters the room.)

Mark Waring: (shaking himself) This is better luck than I expected. I thought they'd all be gone to bed. There was a light here a moment ago. (Goes towards the fire.) It's awfully cold! I thought we'd never get here.

(Bumps into Ethel who is eating her apple before a mirror.) Hello! I-I beg your pardon! (Ethel tums around and screams.)

Ethel: (covering her face with her hands, starts back) lt is his spirit! Oh, I am punished for my folly. In heaven's name, leave me!

Mark: (excitedly) Do my eyes deceive me, or does this dim light cheat me with a vision of happiness! Lady speak to me! Are you not she who, when I lay sick and alone in a strange city and was taken to St. Mary's Hospital, came to me like an angel from heaven, soothing my fever with sweet dreams of love and happiness? Are you not she whom I lost and mourned so bitterly--speak? (3)

On one hand, Halloween provided a perfect backdrop for the caprices of Victorian young people. On the other, the age of reason was at the doorstep, and Halloween superstition was often scorned as the practice of the ignorant. As one lady said to solace a neighbor too afraid to set a dumb supper and wait for the apparition of his future wife, "Do not try it, Mr. Oakly--if she must be not only out of her mind, but actually out of her body, to make you any response, her love is not worth having."(4)

Victorian Parties

By the 1890s newspapers like the Hartford Daily Courant announced Halloween events under their "City Briefs" sections. Magazines printed Halloween recipes, decorating ideas and games. The norm was "quiet home parties in recognition of the quaint customs of days gone by," as reported by the Atlanta Constitution (probably partly true, but also wishful thinking...Halloween pranks were still berymuch part of the holiday) Most of America had now heard of Halloween: lt was an occasion for a party.

Invitations to Halloween parties had to foreshadow the fun to come. Some innovative hostesses left jack-o'-lantems on the doorsteps of their guests, each bearing an invitation. Others sent tiny boxes containing a handmade witch, with the invitation wrapped around her waist. As Victorian ladies were expected to be handy with crafts, most Halloween party invitations were handmade in the shape of Halloween symbols and featured a rhyming verse.

Come at the witching hour of eight

And let the fairies read your fate;

Reveal to none this secret plot

or woe--not luck--will be your lot!

The first Halloween parties, like any young people's party at the turn of the century, were used often for matchmaking. As one Halloween story attests, special care was taken to ensure that guests were able to present themselves as favorably as possible, and that there was ample opportunity for romance:

...a splendid bonfire was soon in operation, and the gay party danced around it after the most approved fashion of boys and Indians. The sight of the flames was extremely becoming, and the young ladies had never appeared to such advantage before.(5)

At all parties, but especially at Halloween, a highly dramatic entrance was a must. The party-giver's house was completely dark, lit only with jack-o'-lantems, fireplaces or, in some cases, long snakes made of tin and fastened above a light, whose heat made the serpent writhe. Cornhusks decorated door knockers and silent, dark-robed figures led the guests to the cellar, the kitchen or some other darkened room before they could remove the wraps. Some hostesses greeted their guests with an old elbow glove filled with sawdust; others, with active decorations such as tall hanging ghost or monstrous cobwebs made of yarn.

Yellow chrysanthemums were suggested for table decor in the advice columns of early 20th-century magazines, and use of these flowers was reported in the society pages of the same. Autumn leaves, cornstalks and berries adorned party rooms, and open doorways were accented with dangling apples and horseshoes.

Halloween party guests dined on nuts served in fresh cabbage shells, brilliant half-pumpkins piled with apples, purple grapes and pears, and chicken salad in hollowed-out tumip shells. Some hostesses served Scottish scones; some opted for New England's Indian pudding.

Parlor Games

Victorian parlor games drew on all of history, unearthing traditions that probably hadn't been used for centuries, such as jumping over a candle flame. The Welsh had purportedly jumped the Samhain fires and boys in England had long ago leapt over bonfires at Midsummer's Eve. Now the Victorians, with full dress trains and tight, hitched-up pants, were jumping over candle flames to determine their luck.

Parties included bobbing for apples, burning nuts in the fire, mirror divinations, snap-apple, apple paring and the test of the three bowls. But there were also many innovations, such as a hodgepodge of futuring games.

Maidens very anxious to know something about their future husbands will do well to try the Bible trick. lt's a good, old-fashioned and very popular trick. Take a Bible and place a key in it, leaving the ring protruding. While the Bible is being supported by the little fingers of two boys or girls recite these words: "If the initial of my future husband's name begins with 'A' turn, key turn." SlowIy repeat the letters of the alphabet, and when the right initial is reached the key will swing around and the Bible fall.(6)

Young women still dropped hot lead into cold water and prophesied the career of their husbands by the shapes they saw, but gone were the days of coffins and ships. Victorian ladies instead saw books (an editor), coins (riches), pills (a doctor), and parchments (a lawyer).

Storytelling contests around the fire were given a new edge by combining the tales with an old counting-off game. Guests each took a twig and set it burning, at the same time telling an impromptu ghost story. When the fire burned through the twig, the story stopped and the next in line continued.

Old Halloween games were given new twists and those new twists spawned new games, until many Halloween parlor games had absolutely nothing to do with the holiday. In a "Halloween weight test," guests were weighed and each number in the weight was assigned a fortune. "Kissing the Blarney Stone" was a game in which blindfolded guests had to try to kiss a white stone set on a table. Young Victorians tried to bite of bags of candy hung by threads from chandeliers or doorways, and bobbed for apples using forks dropped from their full height rather than using their teeth. They carved initials on pumpkins, blindfolded each other and tried to stick a pin in an initial to determine the name of their future mate. They set tiny walnut- shell candle boats afloat in a tub of water and predicted the course of their lives based on the movements of the fragile vessels.

In a never-ending attempt to throw a better party or find something new to do, party hostesses added details to their celebrations that confounded the holiday's purpose. Halloween rites were merged those of May Day, Midsummer's Eve and even New Year's and Christmas. On October 31, 1897, in a letter reprinted from the Philadelphia Times, the Atlanta Constitution reported the use of mistletoe as an October 31st tradition: "In this country it is a favorite evening for parties and balls, and in some sections a branch of mistletoe is suspended from the ceiling and the unfortunate girl who by accident or otherwise finds herself under the mistletoe may be kissed then and there.. . ."

Popular theme parties appeared in the early 1900s. Young people gave Cinderella parties on Halloween (complete with games like picking up a burst bag of corn meal with a sieve), Black Cat parties (here a bad-luck theme--open ladders and umbrellas to contend with in the decor), even parties with a Mother Goose theme. One of the more imaginative ideas to surface, and in fact to become a lasting part of the holiday, was the Halloween haunted house.

The cellar bad been converted into a cavern. Running water splashing over a cowbell tied under a faucet in the laundry gave the sound of rushing water, and kept the bell tolling dismally. Newspapers cut in strips and nailed to the cross beams dangled about the heads of the victims, and a hidden electric fan set the papers in motion and added breezes of damp wind to the charm of this pleasant region.

As each hapless one descended into the cavern, a huge paper bag was burst over his head, a cold, wet hand was laid on his brow...(7)


Although Halloween disguises were still a novelty at adult parties as late as 1900, they gained popularity during the first decades of the 20th century. Halloween pageants and spectacles were also included by clever hostesses of the time:

It was announced that couples should form for a grand march. A goblin bowed to a queen of hearts, a clown to a nun, and just as fancy seized them, gay and sober, joined hands to trip together a merry two-step in and out of the rooms, through door and portieres, a line of fantastic figures.

The music changed to a lanciers; the eight ghosts formed, the rest as they happened to be together, and all went through the figures in a way that would have amazed the originators of that dignified dance.(8)

Ladies' magazines took an intellectual turn as the new century unfolded: travel, politics, history and current events took the places of fiction and romance to meet the needs of a changing readership. In the early years of the 20th century new traditions emerged such as town-wide Halloween parades, which served an American culture that was growing more diverse, democratic, and populist. By the mid-20th century, the celebration of Halloween was given over almost entirely to children.




I. "Episcopal Church will conduct special service next Tuesday," Atlanta Constitution, October 31, 1895.

2. Elizabeth Phipps Train, "The Hallow-e'en Sensation at Gov'ner Dering's," Godey' s Lady's Book, October, 1888, p. 280.

3. Griffith Wilder, "By Cupid's Trick. A Parlor Drama for All Hallowe'en," Godey's Lady' s Book, November, 1885, pp. 500-501.

4. Ella Rodman Church, "Through a Looking-Glass," Godey's Lady's Book, October, 1880, p. 346.

5. Ibid., p. 345.

6. "To-Night Is Hallowe'en," Hartford Daily Courant , October 31, 1895, p. 6.

7. Mary McKim Marriot, "Social Affairs for Halloween," Ladies Home Joumal, October 1908, p. 58.

8. Anna Wentworth Sears, "Games for Halloween," Harper's Bazar, October 27, 1900,p. 1651.

9. Isabel Gordon Curtis, "A Children's Celebration of Halloween," St. Nicholas Magazine, Volume 32, Part II, October, 1905, p. 1124.





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