What is happening on these vintage Halloween cards? Pumpkins drive cars, cabbages wear bow ties, people stare into mirrors to see the future, and a witch flies to the moon on a corncob. Where is the trick-or-treating, costumes, and bounty of candy?
Although the rituals of Halloween seem standard now, only recently has the holiday taken its contemporary shape. To unravel all the visuals of Halloween is to find threads from harvest festivals, Celtic folklore, Victorian parlor games, American immigration, a heavy dose of commercialization, and Christianity’s eclipse of formerly pagan traditions. Jack-O’-Lanterns, for instance, can be traced back to a 17th-century name for a watchman — and unexplained lights in the night — and were later associated with an old Irish tale of a man whose trickery with the devil left him stranded between heaven and hell. He roamed purgatory with a carved turnip, filled with coal, to illuminate his way. Vegetable lanterns in the British Isles were carved to guide similarly lost souls, said to roam the Earth around this time, as well as living travelers in the shortening days of autumn.
When Irish immigrants came to the United States, there were more pumpkins than turnips, and the Jack-O’-Lantern got its orange glow. Yet that’s just one version of the story; as another goes, Jack-O’-Lanterns emerged as boundary markers. Halloween is, in all aspects, a strange mash of such borrowed traditions, with links to the Christian practice of indoctrinating Pagan holidays into their own. Among these is the Gaelic Samhain festival that concluded harvest season, which has been subsumed by the Christian All Hallows’ Eve, All Souls’ Day, and All Saints’ Day. As the nights grew longer, spectral encounters seemed more possible, and it wasn’t always ghosts. One early 20th-century Halloween practice was gazing into a mirror at midnight. Supposedly, the face of your future spouse would appear by candlelight. A weirder divination involved pulling up a cabbage or kale stalks from the dirt, and looking for a prophecy in the roots (thus the appearance of bow tie-sporting cabbage suitors on these cards).
The trick-or-treating is often attribute to belsnickling, a German tradition akin to mumming, in which costumed people went door-to-door for drinks and snacks. Meanwhile, the “tricks” are linked to the pranks frequently played on Halloween in early 20th-century North America. But the emphasis on candy didn’t come until later. Perhaps you remember being warned about razor blades in apples as a kid, or poisoned candy, both of which were myths (although the anxiety was fueled by the real fatal tampering with Tylenol in 1982). Those urban legends were the final nail for homemade confections. The candy companies were already looking for a marketing opportunity in this lull before Christmas. As food historian Sarah Lohman recounted at her recent “Candy: From Early History to Halloween” talk at the Brooklyn Brainery, they’d even attempted to create a new holiday called the “Sweetest Day” (still celebrated in some parts of the Midwest). But the marketing of Halloween-themed candy proved much more popular.
Each of these cards has some trace of this scrambling of iconography, a sort of centuries-long game of telephone with superstitions, folklore, and revelry. As Collectors Weekly describes, the postcards were mainly popular from the late 1800s to 1918. Witches manifest with their familiars, whether black cats or bats, as do new inventions like automobiles. Apple bobbing, once a way to get close to potential suitors during autumnal gatherings, is adopted in the playful imagery. Similar to the Christmas cards from the late 19th and early 20th century, on which you were as likely to see a dead bird as Saint Nicholas, the emergence of accessible printmaking and the improved ease of sending mail helped spread and cement the visuals we relate with Halloween. Fall has long been a time to celebrate, to prepare food needed to make it through the winter, and to eat what couldn’t be saved. Halloween, which mainly thrives in the United States, is a boisterous collision of this country’s immigration history, love for parties, terror of the unknown, and recollection of its early days when people had to come together to survive.