Halloween in the 50’s: Better or Worse than Today?

This past Saturday, I dressed in 1920’s cocktail attire for a “wake” at a local speakeasy. It was the first time in years that I had participated in a costumed Halloween celebration and I enjoyed playing the part of a grieving relative along with other women in their feathers, headbands, sequins and diamonds, and men in their black suits, shiny shoes, silk bow ties and fedoras.

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The next day, while looking at photos posted on Facebook by relatives, friends, friends of friends and total strangers*, I was reminded how much the celebration of Halloween has changed since the 1950’s when I was trick or treating around Vittmer Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A lot of those Facebook images showed children in elaborate costumes enjoying a neighborhood party before sunset with their parents, many dressed in larger versions of those same costumes. Kids of all ages were also shown gathering candy from stores in the mall, or partying at large school or church events. And, of course, there were photos of ghoulish house decorations: witches with lighted eyes, ghosts flying through the air, creepy mechanical vampires and zombies and, as one friend reported, the sounds of chain saws and screams.

What I experienced in the 50’s was very different.

First, there weren’t any parties, except for some small celebrations at school as teachers tried to keep us calm as we waited for the big night.

And… yes, Halloween trick or treating was always at night. It had to be almost dark, no matter how much we were bouncing off the walls with anticipation. It just wouldn’t be spooky enough to go out earlier.

We stayed around our neighborhoods and our parents didn’t go with us once we were old enough – around six or so, I think – to carry our own pillowcases. They didn’t really want to go and we didn’t want them to either. And they never dressed up or went to their own parties.

Instead, they stayed at home to give out candy and sent us on our way with a few warnings. In my case, they went something like …. “Don’t cross the main street, stay in the general vicinity, don’t lose your younger brother, and be home in a couple of hours”.

I can’t remember any store-bought costumes. I think they became more available in the early 60’s. Although we could get some accessories like masks, face paint or costume jewelry at Woolworth’s Five and Dime, we’d have to shop at home to find things that, with a little imagination, would make us look like a pirate, a princess, a ghost, a witch, a cowboy, a rabbit or a clown. One year, I was a hobo (there’s a word you don’t hear anymore) and borrowed clothes from my dad’s closet that had to be safety-pinned everywhere so that I could walk. I remember my brother wanting to be a mummy and my mom cutting up strips of old sheets to wrap around him. It didn’t take long for those strips to begin coming apart and I had to keep re-wrapping him, which was annoying since it took up too much of my candy-gathering time.

Typical 50s costumes

Typical 50s costumes

Ah, candy! Getting chocolate bars was a big deal. Most of the treats were popcorn balls, candy apples (which we didn’t want because they would melt in our pillowcases), bubble gum, candy cigarettes (remember those?), candy corn and pennies. We had to go to a lot of houses to make sure to get enough of our favorite chocolates like Hershey bars, Milky Ways, Baby Ruths and Butterfingers. And, when we got them, they were full size chocolate bars … not like today’s little bitty versions.

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Jack-O-Lanterns, carved by our dads with kitchen knives, were everywhere. I can still remember the smell and feel of the slimy seeds and stringy pumpkin fibers and I can see the pumpkins melting toward the end of the evening after candles burned in them for hours. Almost every house had at least one Jack-O-Lantern to indicate that trick-or-treaters were welcome. And, there was an occasional ghost made from a sheet or a tombstone made out of cardboard.

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1950’s style Jack-O-Lantern

I tried to find even one photo of me in costume as a kid. I have many Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and birthday pictures, but apparently Halloween wasn’t a particularly important holiday to my parents. And, they didn’t have the pressure of social media requiring them to post pictures of their precious kids for friends and relatives.

Halloween was always a magical night, though. Keen anticipation, a little fear, a lot of greed, glowing pumpkins, and a dose of independence made it exciting. When I’d dump my candy on the floor that night and realize that I’d be able to have a sugar fix for days, it was a satisfying reward after an exhausting night.

I don’t think that Halloween in the 50’s was necessarily better than Halloween today. In fact, I wish I could have been a much more authentic mermaid, or rock star, or superhero. And, it’s no doubt a good thing that parents are more involved and cautious these days.

It might not have been better, but it sure was a lot simpler.

Cathy Green

*When I first “joined” Facebook to see photos of the grandkids and a few friends, those are the only photos I saw. Now, the ads and videos are overwhelming and the photos of strangers who are in some way connected to the people I’ve “friended” are getting really irritating. What happened to Facebook?