Halloween Newsstands Behind the Keepers of the Culture

Alex de Borba

Alex de Borba

Newspapers and magazines were the print sources which introduced Halloween to Americans outside of the Irish immigrant community in the years following the Civil War. Industrialisation and improved printing technologies made magazines and newspapers more readily available in greater number throughout the country, both of which were bought and read by women.

Halloween initially appeared in these publications as “historical,” cultural pieces to satisfy a leisure-time curiosity for the romantic past among wealthier American women — the type of information that women often requested in correspondence with publishers who commissioned the pieces from often-female authors. This trend contributed to a woman’s “inner life” by keeping her well-read and cultured, traits which were key to maintaining the image of propriety. Kristin H. Gerhard’s term “keepers of the culture” is a telling phrase that helps to explain Halloween’s spike in popularity, with its “quaint lore,” party-planning advice, and old-world divinatory practices which hailed to an ancestral past even as it predicted one’s romantic future.

While information on Halloween and other cultural topics relied on print publications as vehicles for circulation, these print publications and the business leaders who produced them had to be attuned to their readership in order to maintain success. Increasingly, print media and advertisers focused on women as their target audience, specifically among the white, educated, urban middle class — the same stratum of American society who both preserved and shaped the Halloween of the British Isles into something it would come to call its own. Despite the fact that this particular stratum of women is described as the “target” of publishers and manufacturers, the relationship between the two groups was much more interdependent and balanced. In her article ‘Gender, Consumption, and Commodity Culture,’ Mary Louise Roberts challenges the long-held ideas of the inevitability of certain modern consumptive practices and “the dichotomised relationship between Mr Breadwinner and Mrs Consumer.” This view largely fails to take into account the idea of women as “keepers of culture,” a power separate from the “power of the purse” that complicates the idea of agency. Many of the biggest magazine titles, for example, only discovered great success by paying close attention to the preferences of readers and fostering communication with them. Their readers — women with the time and money to contribute to continual readership — were interested in information that dealt both with household maintenance and advice as well as entertainment and culture. Louisa Knapp Curtis, who co-published the Ladies’ Home Journal with her husband, actively identified women as the purchasing agents of the home and encouraged their correspondence and participation with the content of her magazine according to their wants and needs. Louisa Curtis’ husband, Cyrus, solicited advertisers by insisting that the journal’s “real reason” for existing was to “give you people who manufacture things that American women want and buy a chance to tell them about your products.” As historian Mary Ellen Zuckerman points out, these journals “rested on females’ roles as consumers and advertisers’ desire to reach these consumers.”

As social and economic change swept the nation, the negotiation of social changes among different societal groups took distinct forms. The “new” middle class that emerged in larger urban centres indicated a significant shift from a time when much of the nation’s people lived in the country and small towns. Much of the art and literature of the time illustrated anxieties associated with this geographic relocation. Historian Peter Stoneley points out that the interchange between city and country became somewhat of a class dynamic, as perceived binaries of country versus metropolis, “uncouth” versus “unspoilt,” and “modern” versus “antimodern” emerged. Stoneley, in writing about girls’ and young women’s literature, argues that “buying into womanhood” served as a nation’s allegory towards negotiating this change, as “the girl — and above all, the middle-class girl — could serve as the vehicle for both nostalgia and optimism.” Stories about Halloween show that the duality also appeared in the context of product advertisements and magazine content, particularly women’s magazines. Women of the middle-to-upper classes exercised more power over household disposable income and were identified as the cultural guardians of the private sphere of the home, two key characteristics that defined their relationship with the products and media that they consumed.

Many newspapers contained small sections on Halloween published around October 31st every year, but Halloween was largely popularised through magazines — especially magazines directed at a female audience. In the years following the Civil War, advanced printing technology and mass marketing techniques increased both the availability and the affordability of periodicals for women, though most working-class women still could not afford the luxury of periodicals. Magazines aimed at a female readership presented cultural trappings that were those of the new middle class of women who were making domesticity into a career. The beginnings of successful women’s magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal originated in newspapers as advice page supplements for housekeeping purposes and eventually grew to satisfy more needs among a middle-class readership. Publications such as Ladies’ Home Journal, along with Godey’s Ladies’ Book, Harper’s Bazaar, and Delineator, grew in size and number during this period and contained more and more stories, poetry, and advice for women. These publications offered plenty of housekeeping advice but also recognised these women as a societal group with more leisure time to spare as well. The magazines fulfilled an “entertainment function,” as Zuckerman argues, by printing poetry and short stories along with nonfiction pieces. The balance between fiction and nonfiction made magazines into products both romantic and informative; products which satisfied a nostalgic hunger at the same time as they helped women keep up with modern-day issues and concerns.

A piece titled ‘A Calendar of Anniversaries’ in an October 26, 1878 issue of Harper’s Bazaar listed all manner of cultural and historical events and observances for the month of ‘October the Glorious’ that might be of interest to its female readers. Nearly all of the entries hail to particular moments in Roman, English, and religious history and recognise festivals, birthdays of prominent historical figures, and the anniversaries of battles. Halloween, naturally, appears at the end of the article as “the night of the walking abroad of spirits, both of the visible and invisible world.” The author described the belief as one “faded into the lapse of time,” though “the popular rites belonging to it are still maintained in Great Britain.” The anonymous author, however, concluded the entry — and the article — with a valid claim that it was “a testimony to the kinship of the race, however, alien faiths or hostile interests or cycles of time may seem to segregate the generations.” Here, the author tied the celebration of Halloween in with a long, ennobled history of English-speaking peoples and used it to demonstrate the lasting quality of specific values through the centuries.

Authors of informative pieces on Halloween addressed the supernatural qualities of the holiday by counting them as part of their old-world, romantic charm. An 1879 piece in Harper’s Bazaar described the charms and superstitions of Halloween as if they were “dropped out of some ancient time and heavenly weather”; a “revival of the old ways of heathendom and the superstitions of the poetic pagan.” Authors lightheartedly treated such divinatory practices as trivial but emphasised their usefulness as components of celebration. “Now is the time,” the author insisted good-naturedly, to revel in the “mirth and jollity” of the festival during a season where “creature comforts” are more appreciated in order to “overcome the dreariness of the elements, and in supplying pleasure denied by the cheerless outside world, that there should come occasions whose celebration is so purely in the region of incorporeal things.” Halloween in the United States was only beginning to creep into the national consciousness, but its history as part of the Anglo calendar was quickly appealing to magazine’s readers and satisfied desires for pieces that were both romantic and informative. Authors encouraged curiosity towards the history and trappings of Halloween or All-Hallows’ Eve, and such pieces satiated interest and informed a spike in Halloween observances at the hands of a mostly female, middle-class readership.

Thanks to pieces in women’s magazines, Halloween was a form of entertainment somewhat like a form of historical fiction by the decade leading up to the twentieth century. It was “exotic” in that its origins were supernatural and rooted in what was once the “other,” but it also rang of the familiar because it was associated with Anglo-Saxon culture and history. As “keepers of culture,” female readers could claim Halloween as their heritage at the same time as they could shape its migration from “other” to “us.” The nostalgia represented by Halloween offered a way of adapting to and controlling change among the push-and-pull of the modern and anti-modern in American society.

When Halloween pieces began appearing regularly in magazines and newspapers, they were shorter, rarely illustrated, less detailed, and composed with a bit more authorial distance than they would be in subsequent decades. Newspaper pieces of the early 1870s often took up a condensed column that consisted of a short history tracing Halloween from pagan times through Christian influence up until its modern observances in the British Isles. On October 19, 1871, the Pittsfield Sun identified Halloween and its rituals (such as the practice that earned it the moniker “Nutcrack Night”) as a “memorable day in Ireland and Scotland, and among our citizens of these nationalities is not altogether overlooked in this country”; it is one of “the popular observances of our old country cousins.” The Portland Daily Press reported that the day was observed by “mostly natives of the old country and their children who have been taught to keep the day with old-time ceremonies,” while a very brief piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1874 noted that the holiday would be celebrated by “many families with games and plays peculiar to the event,” though it went into no further detail about who these people were. For the American press, Halloween was still primarily a holiday of the “other,” but these first appearances were what initially entertained readers, male and female, who came to associate this particular celebration with a shared ancestral past.

Print media pieces changed by the end of the century, reflecting the popularity of holiday and its integration of old into new. Around the 1890s, print pieces changed in tone and content. The articles grew considerably more detailed in their descriptions of Halloween games, customs, and superstitions, and the change indicated a new interest in celebrating the holiday. Newspapers had been publishing descriptive pieces on Halloween for decades, but as general interest and celebrations grew, these pieces became more detailed, more common, and took up more space. A ‘Women’s World and Work’ article detailing the customs and traditions of Halloween in the Louisiana Times-Picayune noted that “A number of requests have come to this department from young folks to publish in advance some of the curious old customs and games that pertain to All Halloween.” Authors, usually female, provided readers with instructions on how to perform divination rites by burning nuts on the hearth, attempting to bite an apple hung from a string, and holding a candle to a mirror at midnight to catch a glimpse of a future spouse. The print media chronicled the growing popularity of Halloween party celebration. Newspapers featured advertisements for party supplies and social register-type “announcements” for the parties themselves, indicating the change in class and gendered appeal of something once represented as an immigrant holiday. By the 1900s, many of these announcements contained a full “guest list” of the names of everyone in attendance at Halloween parties given by prominent individuals. As middle-to-upper-class Americans sought to slake their interest with celebration, Halloween reached its first significant peak in popularity.

Women’s roles as consumers were just as important as their roles as keepers of culture when it came to the widespread celebration of Halloween. By the end of the nineteenth-century, newspapers, now heavily profit-driven, had indeed begun to consider appealing to the female consumer base. Women’s sections containing advertisements, advice, and fiction — similar to the content of women’s magazines — became more common and prevalent, and advertising took much more of a centre stage as ads were the primary source of newspaper profits. Business leaders realized the potential for what Leigh Eric Schmidt terms “new market experiments” using the language of novelty and abundance with occasional nods to “old-time” festivity. Ads appeared around the same time as parties were being announced in papers and offered goods to aid in celebration. Newspaper advertisements until the 1890s, in general, had been brief, largely unremarkable, and typographically analogous to the text that constituted the main body of newspapers. Halloween advertisements up to this point were almost all simple lists of items like “Hallowe’en” dates, nuts, cider, and other foods arranged by bulk prices. Thanks to new printing technologies, advertisements gradually bore unique graphics and textual designs which set them apart from the rest of the text.

Right at the turn of the twentieth-century, merchants across the country seemed to recognise the economic opportunity as Halloween parties grew in popularity. Advertisements included images of the products they were selling, often surrounded by pictures of jack-o-lanterns, bats, witches in advertising a sale of “novel grotesque things for Halloween” that were painted as absolutely essential for hosting a truly unique celebration. These old, deep-rooted symbols formed the basis for the production and sale of new types of products. A large column of ads in the Washington, D.C. Evening World promised “Unmatched Values: Choicest Sweets and Attractive Packages for the Great Night of Goblins and Mystery.” This page advertised everything from bulk assortments of candy to a new “toy sensation” that could be pulled around on wheels called a “Jack O’Lantern Awheel,” which was described as a “faithful reproduction of the old-time country Jack O’Lantern in the real pumpkin colour” and was sure to prompt delight. The symbolism in the ads appealed both to novelty and the old-fashioned qualities that made their products full of promise for hosting the ideal Halloween gathering.

Advertising agencies, which had once directly “peddled advertising space” in newspapers and local magazines, were paid not only for space but the creative content of the space. The advertiser’s job was not only to sell products but to sell particular products for particular merchants. This strategy required more pointed, eye-catching ads that played to more specific needs among consumers, and the ads increasingly included not only a wider variety of goods but images of individuals showcasing or enjoying the goods as well. Although it does not picture consumers of the items being sold, boasts detailed illustrations which evoke the fantastic nature of the holiday surrounding the actual sales pitch.

The ads used images of the products to evoke a sense of the world that the products helped create with a jack-o-lantern, soaring witch, and two young people dressed in clothing that evoked times gone by participating in the traditional apple-bobbing ritual that had become a popular party game by the 1910s. One segment sold silver cloth slippers — an item not explicitly associated with Halloween — as appropriate attire that the ‘Spirit of Youth Would Delight to Possess,’ and pictured the items next to an image of a young woman wearing the shoes as she dances with a male partner. This pitch was pictured alongside an ad for Halloween costumes featuring a young man and young woman modelling the costumes, and below both, the ad for favours and decorations insisted that “everything must be weirdly in keeping to create the mystic atmosphere, so secure the decorations, etc. here, tomorrow morning.” Advertisers increasingly seized upon ideas of old, time-honoured Halloween traditions, symbols, and settings in order to sell the novel and modern goods of the day.

For the public historian, Halloween ads reveal how the use of new advertising techniques created opportunities to sell products by capitalising on the old, and also shows how consumers were expected to use these products. Advertisers for Halloween products quickly picked up on the longing among Victorian Americans for old-fashioned holidays and new ways to celebrate them. “Merchants,” writes Schmidt, “could both stir and satisfy these romantic cravings for sentiment, fantasy, and celebration.” The increase in Halloween’s popularity and desire to celebrate provided widespread cues for business owners that there was money to be made in the sale of the precise foods and symbols that hostesses should use to make each Halloween party unique. Authors of cultural features on Halloween had long connected the holiday as the high time of year for witches, accompanied by bats, cats, and other supernatural spirits which roamed the wilds of the “old country.” The illustrations on advice pages were extremely detailed and often contained evocative imagery of apple-bobbing, foods tied from strings, and harvest-themed tables, scattered among such symbols evocative figures. Authors of these pieces usually called for specific types of refreshment and decorative pieces that could be used to create the right type of atmosphere for a unique party. Most of them prescribed plenty of nuts, apples, fruits, and pumpkins as a homage to old-time customs, but also called for common goods such as bon-bon boxes, place cards, and crepe paper decorations that were designed to resemble new takes on the essential Halloween symbols. Advertisements made use of old symbols and practices to appeal to the romance of the past, but also offered advice for “best practices” when it came to hosting novel Halloween celebrations.

As the turn of the century drew nearer, authors of Halloween features in newspapers and magazines not only took more ownership of the holiday but assumed the role of expert advisers offering “best practices” to the people who were expected to celebrate the holiday. Once advertisers and editors gleaned the needs and desires of their eager audience, newspapers and magazines could serve as a mechanism for “experts” to tell consumers how to celebrate the holiday.

The topic of Halloween assumed full-page spreads complete with detailed illustrations which usually depicted a scene from an ideal Halloween party or one or more women dressed in appropriate attire for the occasion. A new group of celebrants sought to bring the “old world” traditions into the private spaces of their stylish parlours — to “own” them — but in creative, novel ways that would set them apart from their neighbours and peers and tame the different qualities of the symbols and rituals. In these instances, women could honour their ancestral roots and bring the “power of the purse” to a form of use which also gave them the opportunity to create and “keep” their own culture.

Both newspapers and magazines are sources for understanding how Halloween grew in popularity since they offered readers advice on what to buy in order to celebrate. In many cases, authors of feature-length pieces on Halloween either recounted — or created — a tale of a particularly impressive Halloween party or relayed the history of the holiday and applied it to ideas for party favours, themes, and games. In October 1904, Miriam Manning wrote a piece for the Pictorial Review titled ‘Talks to Girls,’ concerning “manners, dress, and entertaining — suggestions for a Hallowe’en party” and illustrated with a regal-looking woman in a long dress. In it, Manning detailed some of the latest fine fashions in clothing and hairstyles and offered advice on how to utilise these to reflect the spirit of Halloween, such as long cloaks and hair pieces. She concluded by asking her readers to “let her inform them of a Halloween party given last year,” in which the hostess used “old-fashioned” props and activities — including the traditional mirror divination ritual — to celebrate in “the usual Halloween way.” At the same time, Harper’s Bazaar published a piece by Elizabeth Robinson titled ‘A Novel Hallowe’en Party’ in which Robinson recounted a party she had supposedly attended. She spoke of a party at a “large hospitable house” with a large Jack-o’-lantern on the porch and decorations which evoked an old-fashioned country setting of “the autumnal spoils of fields and woods.” Guests played the “usual” Halloween games such as apple-bobbing, snap-apple, and blowing out a line of candles to see how many were left burning to indicate the number of years before a woman met her future husband. The old divination games, of course, were solely focused on determining a woman’s romantic future as it related to an unknown man; however, many of the authors who prescribed these games noted that these “seasonable tricks” were meant to evoke a quaint, old-world feel for the gathering. They were treated light-heartedly, as remnants of an ancestral past that fed the holiday’s popularity.

If an American woman at the turn of the century put down her magazine and picked up a newspaper, she would find many of the same articles found in periodicals. The informative and prescriptive Halloween articles that appeared in newspapers during this time exhibited the same trends in content and tone. Throughout a few decades, the short, condensed sections on the far-off history of the holiday expanded, filling entire pages closer to the fronts of newspapers and utilising more striking imagery to catch a reader’s eye. The types of party advice pieces found in periodicals flourished in the pages of papers which also carried advertisements for the goods recommended as supplements to these gatherings. A full-page spread in an October 1900 San Francisco newspaper featuring the background of Halloween as well as prescriptive advice on how to ‘Give a Unique Halloween Party.’ In this feature, the title jumped out at the top of the page in a bold, decorative typeset with the clear directive ‘How to Celebrate Halloween.’ This page also featured inset images which depict a large group of young, well-dressed men and women partaking in traditional Halloween games such as snap apple and apple bobbing. The most prominent figure, however, was an illustration of a young, attractive woman dressed in a beautiful gown who occupies much of the foreground. This woman, smiling, tosses an apple peel over her shoulder — another traditional divinatory practice. This figure of the young, pretty, well-dressed white woman appeared in the pages of many a newspaper and periodical as the usually-female authors offered a colourful, quaint history of Halloween and many suggestions for celebration.

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