Vintage Halloween Tricks & Treats by Allie Michelle

The days grow shorter and the leaves turn the reds and golds of autumn. Summer may be over, but at least we have something to look forward to in October. We still carry on the old traditions of pumpkin picking and dressing  in creepy costumes. Enjoy some tricks and treats to get the month started with a Vintage Halloween.

Ava Garder poses as a Halloween pinup.

Actress Ava Gardner poses as a Halloween pinup.

Read more about Ava Gardner in Insatiable Ava.

First of all, let’s start with where it all began. Halloween (also called All Hallows Eve, Hallowe’en, or All Saints Eve) traditionally represented a three day period between October 31 to November 2 for Christians to honor dead Saints and bring some humor in confronting death.


Ancient Celtics believed Halloween marked a time when the worlds of the living and dead overlapped, and the dead would return to haunt the living. (Pictured from the German film Nosferatu 1922)

As with many Christian holidays (i.e. the Easter bunny), Halloween also borrowed customs from pagan traditions. In this case, the festival of Samhain (pronounded sah-win) celebrated by ancient Celts on October 31, a time when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and the deceased would return to wreak havoc. In order to prevent the dead from stirring up trouble like sickness or damaging crops, people wore masks and costumes to mimic the evil spirits and appease them. The festival also included bonfires which attracted insects and bats, images still incorporated in the holiday today.

Clara Bow poses as a Halloween pinup.

1920s silent film actress, Clara Bow poses as a Halloween pinup with typical Halloween imagery.

Vintage Halloween Tricks

The American holiday as we know it today really started in the in the mid-1800s, when millions of Irish immigrants arrived in the United States bringing Halloween traditions along with them. The original custom of trick or treating has roots in the medieval English and Irish practice of mumming or souling, when Christians would recite verses in exchange for food. Children borrowed the idea in Halloween and started dressing up in costumes, going from house to house asking for treats or else threatening a trick instead.

vintage halloween

Borrowing from the English and Irish traditions, children began dressing up in costumes and asking for candy on Halloween.

In Cajun areas like New Orleans, people would hold a nocturnal Mass in cemeteries during Halloween, placing candles on graves. Some families would even stay the entire night at the graveside. Read more creepy stories of the big easy in Haunted New Orleans.

In 1920, Anoka, Minnesota aka The Halloween Capital of the World became the first city to officially celebrate Halloween in an effort to prevent pranks like kids tipping outhouses or letting cows loose to run around the streets. The town organized a parade while children wearing costumes received popcorn, peanuts, and candy. The daytime festivities culminated with a giant bonfire in the center of town.


Dressed up for the first official Halloween in Anoka, Minnesota in 1920

Trick or treating spread across the country by the early 1900s. In the 1920s and 30s, Halloween pranks and mischief became a problem and often turned into vandalism, property damage, and even assaults. Juvenile delinquents and KKK members used the holiday as an excuse to engage in criminal activity.


A vintage Halloween card from the 1920s portrays kids up to no good on Halloween.

Some people protested trick or treating, claiming that it represented a form of extortion and vandalism. Even children spoke out against trick or treating. In 1948, members of the Madison Square Garden Boys Club carried a parade banner that read “American Boys Don’t Beg”. In defense, children would explain the tradition to skeptics on radio shows. By the 1930s, the “trick” aspect began to die down, and more children started participating in good-natured trick or treating.


An early trick or treater.

The earliest known publications about “Trick or Treat” appeared in 1934, when a newspaper in Portland, Oregon ran an article about Halloween pranks that kept local police on their toes. Vintage Halloween cards started to appear during the 1930s. Today, original vintage Halloween cards depicting the “Trick or Treat” words are collector’s items.

vintage halloween cards

Vintage Halloween cards have become a collector’s item.

National interest in trick or treating grew after 1938, when radio and TV programs like The Jack Benny Show started featuring Halloween episodes. However, the holiday stopped during World War II because of sugar rationing that began in April 1942 until the end of the war in 1947.

The trick or treating custom became firmly established when Walt Disney portrayed the custom in the Trick or Treat episode of the Donald Duck cartoon in 1952.  In the same year, the popular TV show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet also featured a Halloween special. That year UNICEF first conducted a national campaign for children to raise funds of the charity while trick or treating.

Many of the macabre symbols associated with Halloween come from classic literature such as the novels Dracula or Frankenstein or from classic horror films like Frankenstein and The Mummy.

frankenstein movie poster

Popular movies inspired typical images associated with Halloween. (from Frankenstein 1931)

Actually, the original Jack O Lanterns were made out of turnips, not pumpkins. Irish families who immigrated to United States brought the custom with them, but replaced the turnips with pumpkins, as they were more available in North America. The Jack O Lantern comes from a popular Irish tradition of carving faces of the dead onto turnips and putting candles to make them glow to ward off evil spirits.

Jack O Lanterns came from Ireland, where they carved turnips, not pumpkins.

Jack O Lanterns came from Ireland, where they carved turnips, not pumpkins.

By the 1950s, vandalism died down and Halloween became popular among across the country and other parts of the world. People handed out treats in order to prevent tricks like kids egging houses. Today, Halloween represents the second largest commercial holiday in the United States – to the tune of $2 billion spent on candy each year. Around the world, adults and children alike continue to carry on Halloween traditions on the evening when the dead are said to return and walk among the living.

JFK halloween

John F. Kennedy celebrates Halloween with John Jr. and Caroline in the Oval Office.