Some of the earliest versions of commercial jack-o-lanterns were pressed cardboard with a tissue-paper face from the 1910s and 1920s.
Halloween, as we know it today, became popular in the United States in the late 19th century when a flood of Irish and English immigrants brought a renewal of interest in the study of ancient customs, folk tales and traditions. In the early 1900s, parties were the most common way to celebrate the holiday, and this is when the first Halloween favors, candy containers, games, lanterns and decorations slowly began to appear. By the 1930s, these tin, wooden, paper and cardboard items were being produced by several companies. And because they were mostly discarded after use, those that still exist today are highly valued as collectibles.
Halloween’s roots date back thousands of years to ancient Celtic customs celebrating the fall harvest, when hunter-gatherers dressed in costumes made of animal skins and feathers, feasted on the collected bounty and carved decorative lanterns out of squash, apples and melons. This time marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next, when it was believed that spirits of the dead could briefly cross over to join the living and annual fortunes could be read.
Europe’s spreading Christianity eventually influenced an end to these pagan rituals, and by 800 A.D. they had been replaced by solemn feasts honoring the saints (or “hallows”). November 1 (the first day of winter) was “All Hallows’ Day,” making Oct. 31, of course, “Hallows’ evening.” But many people still believed that the souls of the dead where walking among them during this time.
A rare “Black Cat” fortune-telling card set from 1897.
Today, collectors of very early Halloween often concentrate in particular areas, as some covet the old party decorations because they were most often soiled during the party and thrown away. Unused 85-year-old place mats, name tags, napkins, nut cups, streamers, dance cards, gummed seals, table covers, invitations and pop-up centerpieces are very hard to find. Many people also collect the games played at these parties. Others collect the illustrated annual booklets that suggested party ideas and advertised hundreds of paper items for sale, like “Dennison’s Bogie Book,” filled with recipes, parlor games and how-to guides for making costumes, favors, masks, crepe paper flowers and hats. The advertising in these old guides can also be very valuable when dating the first appearance of vintage Halloween items.
The 1923 “Dennison’s Bogie Book,” filled with recipes, parlor games and how-to guides.
Commercially produced jack-o-lanterns are a favorite early collectible, as they were used both as candy holders and as lanterns. The earliest versions were painted glass globes from Germany and date to around 1905. Highly inflammable pressed cardboard lanterns with tissue-paper face inserts originated in Germany in the 1910s and the 1920s and contained tiny matchstick-sized candles mounted in tin holders. In addition to pumpkins, the cardboard lanterns can be found as black cats, red devils, white skeletons and even green-striped watermelons. It was not until the mid 1930s that sturdier, paper maché jack-o-lanterns began to appear (made in the United States).
Candy containers are another fun area of collectability. Many early versions still exist; most made of composition, glass or cardboard. Some larger versions could hold candy in a hollowed-out body and opened when the figural head was pulled out. But several German versions stood atop tiny cylinder drawers that pulled down and away from the figures. Each little drawer was big enough for only one small piece of wrapped hard candy or a couple of pieces of candy corn.
Candy containers are another fun area of collectability. These are representatives from approximately 1920 and measure two to four inches tall.
Another example of an early Halloween decoration. The ghost on the left has a head that bobs on a spring and the candy drawer is inset under his feet.
A German wood ratchet from 1920 with a composition pumpkin head and crepe paper collar. The ratchet makes a loud scraping noise when twirled.
A double-sided lantern with tissue inserts and accordion crepe paper sides, circa 1930.
Flat cardboard die-cuts are collected for their colorful lithographs and because they come in every size and type. Skeletons, bats, owls, cats, scarecrows and skulls are common and they are often shaped as masks.
Noisemakers are always a favorite vintage collectible, originating with the Celts’ desire to scare away the dead. They squeak, whistle, clang, knock, rattle, click, jingle, honk, whiz or flap, and the tin ones are usually beautifully lithographed. Some blow out long, curled tissue paper snakes. Some even shoot sparks when a flint rubs against a sharp metal wheel.
Those who want to collect some of the very earliest of Halloween examples often search for vintage postcards. Halloween postcards date as early as 1901 and continued in popularity until around 1919. They were known for their vivid color lithographs and were often created by renowned artists and children’s book illustrators. Some even showcased embossed printing, metallic gold highlights or movable parts.
A 1911 Halloween postcard published by John Winsch.
It can be challenging and fun to search for very early Halloween memorabilia (prior to the wide use of plastics). And we have barely scratched the surface of examples. There are china tea sets, costumes, photographs, stickpins, sheet music, paper dolls, magazines, catalogs, art and scores of others. But always beware—modern reproductions are very common. Many are still marked “Germany” and can look quite similar to the originals. Die-cuts, especially, are hard to authenticate.
Happy hunting and happy Halloween!
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.
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These are representatives from approximately 1920 and measure two to four inches tall. The ghost’s head bobs on a spring and the candy drawer is inset under his feet.