Many photos of vintage Halloween costumes are collected because of their unintended artistry. This early 1930s rural snapshot is haunting and hypnotic.
Halloween’s roots arguably date back thousands of years to Celtic harvest traditions. But the celebration in the form we know it today has a much more recent history. In the United States, Halloween parties as social events started in the 1880s and 1890s. And although masquerade balls had always been popular, costumes were not worn for Halloween until the early 1900s, when local communities began to celebrate the day with parades. Photographs of those earliest costumes are coveted and have a crossover appeal to collectors of both photography and Halloween memorabilia. But it is also fascinating for collectors of vintage clothing to observe the changes in styles and themes as they evolved over the years.
In the early part of the 20th century, most people did not have a lot of extraneous possessions, so costumes were made from available clothing. Hobos, gypsies, scarecrows and clowns were popular because the ragbag was a usual source of material. Greasepaint was also used and photos often show ethnic stereotypes that would be considers politically incorrect today. But usually, the earliest Halloween ensembles were simply made-up constructions with layers of mismatched apparel, odd-sized accessories and home-made masks. The combinations resulted in freakish outfits that were often more chilling than ones worn today. It was not until the 1930s that costumes began to represent personalities from contemporary culture, like film stars, comic book characters and political leaders.
This photo from the 1920s shows typical hodge-podge Halloween creatures made from available clothing. The face masks were cut from gauze, stiffened with paste and then painted.
Between 1900 and 1920, postcards were a very common medium of exchange and photo postcards of people in costumes were very popular. Additionally, the Internet has allowed a wide circulation of early photos that are now digitized. However, many of these are often misidentified as Halloween subjects when they simply represent professional actors from stage plays or costume balls unrelated to the holiday. Masquerade parties were very formal events that were attended by the elite. The outfits were elaborate and expensive, trimmed with lace and ostrich feathers. Men dressed like Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and the women like Marie Antoinette. Halloween revelers, on the other hand, looked more like bums and ragamuffins. If a photo shows a character standing in front of an elaborately-designed back-drop or scene that does not look Halloween-themed, the costume was probably for another purpose.
Although this photo of a man dressed as a side of bacon circulates on the Internet and is sometimes purported to be a Halloween costume, it is not. Instead, it is a costume worn to the Covent Garden Theatre’s Fancy Dress Ball in early 1894. Swine expert George Nicholls later wrote a comprehensive book about pork products and included a photo of his costume in the book’s introduction.
In lieu of postcards and mass-produced digital copies, some collectors prefer original, one-of-a-kind Halloween photographs because they will then have unique artifacts unlike any other. They scour old scrapbooks and photo albums at estate sales and flea markets to look for pictures with highly unusual outfits or abstract ideas. They look for elements that will help date a photo or determine its locale. Many look for accidental artistry or riveting poses in otherwise amateur snapshots. Collectors especially like photos that include bonus items, like very rare Halloween memorabilia, period advertising, antique cars or toys.
This 1916 photo is valued because it depicts two rare jack-o-lantern parade lanterns (right and bottom) that were made of tin and held up in the air by their pole handles. They swiveled so the candles inside would remain upright. Parade lanterns with sawtooth grins are some of the earliest and most sought-after Halloween artifacts. The photo sold for $143 in 2008.
Going door-to-door for treats did not take hold in the United States until the 1930s or later, but Halloween pranks began much earlier, at the same time as the first costumes. Perhaps outfits from that period were stark and ghoulish because they were designed not for a party, but for terrorizing the neighborhood with scary shenanigans. As a result, 100-year-old Halloween photos are very collectible. Many of the more mesmerizing images circulate all over the Internet and are published in books.
This photo from the early 1900s, with costumes made from flour sacks and tablecloths, is as stunning and frightening as anything seen today.
But most of these photos have no known provenance. After three or four generations the people are now anonymous, the inspiration for their bizarre costumes unknown, the rest of their lives a mystery. Yet, that picture of their creation has been seen by thousands. Who could have guessed that one faceless portrait, taken outside on a bleak autumn day, might last into perpetuity? And still haunt us today.
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.
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