Masked Halloween Mystery
Decked out for Halloween, a masked woman on roller skates—most likely a random addition to her costume—poses in 1910.
Masquerade parties in the United States were much more common a hundred years ago, when people dressed up not just for Halloween but also for several other holidays, including Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve, according to Lesley Bannatyne, author of the forthcoming book Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America's Fright Night.
Private social clubs often threw Halloween parties for their members, as it was the first major holiday after most people had returned from their summer homes.
That said, it's "not like Halloween [in the early 1900s] was an East Coast phenomenon or a high-society phenomenon"—people of all classes donned costumes across the country, even in small Western mining towns, she said.
The "early 20th century also was the beginning of a real democratic movement, a push toward a popular culture," Bannatyne said, so Halloween was "very egalitarian—everyone celebrated it in their own way."
Halloween was originally perceived as a "rustic, country holiday," especially during the U.S. Victorian period, about 1840 to 1900, she noted. (Also see "Candy Facts: Halloween Treats From Ancient Recipes.")
"Overwhelmed by the fallout of industrialization, [Victorians and early Halloween revelers] sought out a simpler time where people were more connected to the land and the natural world.
"The quaint, old-world, country nature of Halloween appealed to them."
Halloween Child's Play
Halloween in the U.S. was mainly a celebration for children until the premiere of the 1978 slasher flick Halloween, when the holiday "became paired with contemporary horror," she added.
This new association with bloody violence—and the attendant gory costumes and decorations—"opened up the holiday for adults and older children to celebrate, and made it more popular."
The star and moon icons, for instance, may reflect a fascination with mysticism and magic, which have been connected to the "spooky aura" of Halloween for centuries, Bannatyne said.
"Many of the first Halloween costumes reflected people's interest in the exotic, such as other cultures," she said. "You often find Egyptian-inspired costumes, for example, because of the mystic association with ancient Egypt."
Likewise, she added, this costume's celestial symbols could represent night—"the domain of Halloween."
Bewitched on Halloween
Women wearing improvised witch costumes line up for a photograph in the U.S. in 1910.
"Witches and Halloween have been tied together in the public's imagination since at least 16th-century Scotland," Bannatyne said. At that time, "you begin to find poems such as Alexander Montgomerie's 'The Flighting of Polwart,' where witches ride through the night on All Hallow's Eve."
"Also, costumes were always homemade at first," she noted. "People only began to buy manufactured costumes in the second and third decades of the 20th century, when a few savvy companies—Dennison and Beistle were the first—became aware that money could be made from Halloween decorations."
Costumed girls—including one swathed in swastikas—smile for the camera on October 25, 1918, on the way to a Halloween dance pageant. The swastika had different meanings before the rise of the Nazi party in the mid-20th century—for one, it's an ancient symbol for life in some Indian religions, according to Columbia University.
"Most [U.S.] civic and private organizations in the first half of the 20th century"—such as dancing schools, churches, women's groups, and military groups—"all hosted Halloween parties for children," Bannatyne said.
"It was partly an attempt to keep children busy on Halloween, so as to cut down on some of the mischief that happened at night."
Bobbing for Apples
Due to Halloween's rural origins—its precursor, Samhain, was marked 2,000 years ago in Celtic Europe—the harvest-time holiday has often been associated with apples, nuts, and cabbages, Bannatyne said.
Today Halloween is a "rogue holiday," not attached to any person, ethnicity, or event, according to Bannatyne. Because of that, it's often a "cultural bellwether" for what happens in U.S. society.
For instance, on Halloween 2001, right after the September 11 terrorist attacks, more families than usual went trick-or-treating—for example as firemen—to show their "lack of intimidation," she said.