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!

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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Author: tammayauthor

Tam May writes engaging, fun-to-solve historical cozy mysteries. Her fiction is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area because she adores sourdough bread, Ghirardelli chocolate, and the area’s rich history. Tam’s current project is the Adele Gossling Mysteries. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature, watching classic films, reading self-help books, or cooking yummy vegetarian dishes.