Fun and Mischief: Halloween in the Early 20th Century

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It’s Halloween in the United States today, and if you live in America, you likely already have bags of candy stashed on the front table near your door, expecting little nippers to come knocking at your door calling “trick or treat!” 

Halloween these days is a relatively tame affair where fun is the name of the game. Dressing up in costumes, taking the kids door to door to get candy, and for some, attending a party or settling on the couch to watch spooky movies (I already have my collection of Val Lewton films geared up). But in the early 20th century, kids had a very different idea of what constituted “fun” for Halloween. Mischief and mayhem were the order of the day (or, I should say, the night).

What do I mean by mischief? Watch this clip from the 1944 classic film Meet Me in St. Louis. The film is set in 1904 and gives a pretty accurate glimpse of how kids celebrated Halloween in the early 20th century. In this scene, kids are building a bonfire, throwing into it anything flammable they can get their hands on (and one suspects some of the chairs they’re throwing in might have been ripped off neighborhood porches). Then, they’re huddling together, trying to figure out who they’re going to attack with their bags of flour (yes, knocking on someone’s door and throwing flour in their face was a thing back then). That was turn-of-the-century Halloween fun.

Photo Credit: A less grotesque and creepy Halloween costume of a witch, 1910: jamesjoel/Flickr/CC BY ND 2.0

Another thing about this scene is that it shows how kids dressed up for Halloween over one hundred years ago (and if you’re curious to see more costumes from this era, you can look here). Unlike today where we’re more likely to see specially-made cute costumes on smaller kids and spooky-fun costumes on older kids, kids used what they could find around the house. The results were creepier and much more grotesque.

Trick-or-treating is a largely organized affair in the 21st century (so organized that some towns have a “trunk-or-treat” where kids get their trick-or-treating done in a parking lot from the trunks of cars like this community). In the early 20th century, things were a lot more chaotic. Kids would go trick-or-treating in parades and they could become quite unruly. And did they get candy? Not always. Until the mid-20th century, kids got whatever was lying around. That could be a toy or a game the child of the house didn’t want anymore or some other inedible goodie or fruit or nuts.

But what really characterized early 20th-century Halloween was mischief. In addition to the bonfire and the flour-in-the-face mentioned above, it wasn’t unusual for kids to vandalize the homes of people in town they didn’t like or even steal things off their lawn or porch (in the film clip above, one of the adults warns her children to make sure and return a neighbor’s hammock after they steal it). I remember when I was a kid Halloween meant you were at risk of being “egged” (having kids throw rotten eggs at your house) if you didn’t open the door and give out candy. Thankfully, that practice has largely gone out of style. 

So here’s wishing everyone a safe, happy, and truly fun Halloween!

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The New Woman and Her New Education

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In the second book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, the theme is education. Millie Gibb, the murder victim, is a teacher for an all-girls school in Arrojo (which readers of Book 1 will know well). She’s a good teacher but she has higher aspirations. She wants to be an etymologist (a word expert) and she even intends to study the subject under a prominent (fictional) professor in the field. Millie is, like many New Women of her time, college-educated. In fact, a fellow occupant at the boarding house where she lives remarks her college education makes her stand-offish to the rest of the boarders.

I’ve always been interested in women’s education but I was reminded of it recently when I found the 1988 mini-series The Murder of Mary Phagan (if you love historical mini-series, you can catch the entire thing, commercials included, on YouTube here) The mini-series is based on a true story of a 14-year-old factory girl in Atlanta who was found murdered in 1913 and the trial that took place. In the film, the prosecuting attorney discredits a character witness from Columbia University who attests the defendant (a young man) treated people with kindness and respect by pointing out that, since Columbia University was not co-ed, the man had no chance of observing how the defendant treated women (which is an important part of the case against him).

Photo Credit: Postcard of Columbia University campus 1903 (a good 80 years before the college became co-ed), New York Public Library: NYPL’s Public Domain Archive/CC0 1.0

It wasn’t only Columbia University that barred women from its ranks (it didn’t become co-ed until 1983) but many other universities in the country. While public schools had been co-ed for a while, colleges in America were much slower in embracing women amongst their ranks. A lot of this had to do with the idea of the separate spheres (remember, a woman’s destiny was home, family, and church – not higher education). It also had to do with the perception that women were “too delicate” for the rigors of college study. It was generally thought if a woman had too much knowledge, she would be less appealing to men in the marriage market. We can write these off as utter nonsense (or whatever colorful word you want to use) today, but back then, it was taken very seriously.

We have only to look at the statistics to see how true this is. In 1900, about 19% of students in colleges across the United States were women. And note that in the 19th century especially, many women might enter college but they weren’t allowed to graduate or earn a degree. They could take classes only. Thankfully, as the New Woman began to advocate for a more well-rounded vision of femininity (one that included education) and women fought for their rights, increased opportunities for education became part of the agenda and that number increased. By 1920, 39% of college students were women. And this year, a whopping 74% of enrollees were women! From 19% to 75% is pretty impressive.

See how women’s education plays out in A Wordless Death, which you can get here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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A Safe and Sane 4th of July

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Today is Independence Day in America, also known as the 4th of July. Americans have always been enthusiastic about their freedom, especially when you consider it’s an integral part of the American philosophy of life. The Gilded Age and Progressive Era were no exception. America was coming into its own during the late 19th/early 20th centuries in commerce, politics, and society. The Spanish-American War of 1898 brought America into the world stage for the first time. Things were pretty good.

Photo Credit: Drawing of a skeleton dressed up for the 4th of July celebrations, 1899, lithograph, created by L. Crusius, Welcome Collection: Look and Learn/CC BY 4.0

But Americans carried their enthusiasm a little too far. We know the staples of 21st century 4th of July celebrations (before COVID, that is). It’s a social holiday with family BBQs and fireworks to boot. The latter is especially synonymous with Independence Day for most Americans. I’ll never forget the first fireworks display I saw when I was living in San Francisco in 1995. My brother took me to Crissy Field to see the fireworks over the bay. It was an impactful show of country spirit and dedication.

It’s hard to believe in the Progressive Era, some politicians were pushing for a “quiet” 4th of July, encouraging Americans to stay home instead of going out into the street and celebrating with fireworks. But they had good reason. The enthusiasm for the 4th had by that time gotten out of hand. Children were going around shooting off toy guns to join in the fun and sometimes their aim wasn’t so careful. Fireworks, as you might imagine, weren’t exactly sophisticated in those days so safety wasn’t a priority. In addition, there were canons, firecrackers, and other explosives set off that caused many injuries and even death. And we’re talking serious statics here. In 1903 (the year my Adele Gossling Mysteries opens), more than 400 people died and 4,000 were injured during the nation’s 4th of July celebrations. Many of these came from tetanus as a result of shrapnel wounds from dangerous explosives or careless toy guns.

These well-wishers of what was dubbed the Safe and Sane movement weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. We know many Americans made fun of the reform movements taking place in the early 20th century and they resented these politicians who wanted to take away their fun on Independence Day. Many cities began to implement ordinances to try and curtail these dangerous celebrations. In San Francisco (where part of my series takes place) women’s clubs worked to get toy guns out of the hands of kids younger than seventeen.

This movement encouraged other cities to implement more community-related events around the Fourth (like the yearly firework display at Crissy Field in San Francisco that I saw in the 1990s). Other events besides fireworks were sports, games, and picnics. These events gave Americans a chance to celebrate the holiday in a social environment that was, well, safe and sane!

Want to see more Progressive Era politics in action? Read the Adele Gossling Mysteries!  Book 1 is now available for purchase. Book 2 will be out at the end of this month but you can get it now on preorder at a special price.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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The Value of Words

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Words are important to me. I don’t think any writer hates words, even though we sometimes feel like a puppy tripping all over ourselves trying to get them right. 

When I was in high school back in the 1980s, my sister bought the Missing Persons album Spring Session M. The song I loved most was, not surprisingly, “Words” (if you’re into a bit of nostalgia or have no clue what I’m talking about, here’s the song). I find the lyrics “When no on listens/There’s no use talking at all” ironic now because, let’s face it, in the 21st century, we’re not doing as much talking as we did forty years ago. We’re texting and emailing instead.

Photo Credit: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos.com 

Since I’m fascinated by words, it makes sense some of my characters in my Adele Gossling Mysteries would be too. Book 2 of the series focuses on a murder victim who is a word freak. Millie Gibb, the English teacher at the local girls’ school, is rather lofty in the position she takes on words:

“May I ask what your book is about?” Adele asked. 

“The history to words,” said the woman. “They don’t appear out of the sky. Someone had to make them up. And in the case of the English language, many people put their hand in.” Her eyes still on the invisible shine, she advanced a little, the red returning to her face with the waxy shine. “One word can go through tens of thousands of evolutions.”

Millie’s point is well taken. When I was getting my bachelor’s degree in English in Israel, we had an influx of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine in our class. These students had the double challenge of not only learning Hebrew but English as well. One day, I chatted with one of them and asked her what language she found harder to learn, Hebrew or English (for those who might not know it, Hebrew is a challenge to learn because it uses an entirely different alphabet.) She said without hesitation that English was much harder. When I asked her why, she explained Hebrew has pretty consistent grammar rules (for example, there are certain letters in the alphabet that, if they come first in a word, are always pronounced differently than if they come in the middle or end of the word.) English, on the other hand, is all over the place, and one has to learn the exceptions to the rule because you never know when one will suddenly come up without any logical explanation. I found this view to be consistent with the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) business people I tutored later on in my life.

Adele understands the value of words too because she’s an epistolary expert. Keep in mind letter writing was still the main means of communication in the early 20th century, as telephones were still few and far between. Adele takes letters and writing very seriously, which you know if you’ve read Book 1 of the series. One of the reasons why she decided to open a stationery store was because she values words and their meanings.

You’ll be able to read all about Millie Gibb and her word obsession (and whether her fascination with words leads to her death) on July 30. However, you can snag your copy of A Wordless Death now at a special preorder price here 

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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