The Frights of Yesteryear: Halloween in the 1920s
Can you feel the eerie in the air? Halloween is approaching. Before you celebrate the holiday by getting your scare on at Unhinged: Housewarming, our immersive haunted attraction set during Prohibition, prepare yourself for nostalgic frights by reading what a 1920s Halloween was really like.
Even without cocktails flowing, Prohibition Era Halloween parties packed a punch. Spooky celebrations got a whole lot more festive thanks to the Beistle Company, which launched its line of Halloween decor in 1920. Especially popular were the company’s cutouts of skeletons, witches, and black cats, which still hang in windows and on walls every October. These novelties helped Halloween party hosts create a party atmosphere that was equal parts frightening and fun.
The 1920s also produced its share of Halloween songs. Brassy, big band tunes like Jack Hylton’s “Bogey Wail” and stripped down, mournful little earworms like Helen Gross & the Kansas City Five’s “Undertaker’s Blues” were the soundtrack of the 1920s Halloween party. Friends, neighbors, and partners danced the night away to scary stories set to swinging music and sang along to macabre melodies about ghosts, goblins, and devils.
No 1920s Halloween party was complete without playing games. One popular pastime was pumpkin ring toss, where competitors tried to throw a ring – usually made of rope – around a pumpkin. Another 1920s classic lives on to this day: Bobbing for apples was the go-to party game. In some areas of the country, the old school version of apple bobbing comes with a romantic twist: Women marked the apples in different ways, and if a man caught a woman’s marked apple, they were destined to be a match.
1920s Halloween costumes are a far cry from their modern counterparts. For starters, they were homemade, as manufactured costumes didn’t hit the market for another decade. Many costumes were made from aprons or sheets (think the classic ghost costume) and were often the loving handiwork of resourceful parents. That’s not the only way Prohibition Era costumes differ from today’s mass-produced versions.
These days, trick-or-treaters and Halloween party-goers often dress up as someone or something specific. It might be your favorite superhero, a celebrity, a nod to a pop culture phenomenon, or a historical figure like Sarah Winchester. This was not necessarily the case in the 1920s, as the focus was more on concealing one’s identity than inhabiting a particular character. People dressed up as witches, clowns, animals, and whatever monsters they could craft with their own able hands.
Halloween and pranks go hand-in-hand. But by 1920s standards, today’s Halloween mischief is child’s play. Rather than toilet-papering trees or egging houses, the pranksters of yesteryear stole gates, put people’s wagons on their roofs, whacked unsuspecting victims with sacks of flour, and broke windows. The vandalism eventually got so out of hand in some places it was illegal to wear a mask to the local Halloween parade.
The uptick in destruction coincided with the rise of trick-or-treating. Unlike today, saying the phrase “trick or treat” wasn’t a Halloween ritual, it was an ultimatum; it was a quid pro quo. Either a person “treated” the masked person at their door – often with cookies, nuts, or toys – or they made themselves vulnerable to a “trick.”
We think we speak for everyone when we say we’re glad those days are behind us.
See What a 1920s Halloween was Like at Winchester Mystery House
You can’t go back in time and crash a 1920s Halloween party, but you can take a spooky stroll down memory lane and see vintage Halloween items at the Winchester Mystery House! Complement your visit to Unhinged: Housewarming by checking out the exhibits at our Halloween museum. You’ll find costumes, decor, and more artifacts from the Prohibition Era that help bring the Unhinged experience to life.