Our modern traditions of Halloween were popularized in America in the mid 1800s when 700,000 Irish immigrants flooded our shores during the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849). With them they brought the holiday customs we relish today. The traditional Irish holiday customs appealed to the Americans and a revived interest in the holiday ensued. Also brought to American shores were Celtic charms and spells, tales of hobgoblins and evil spirits, and the use of Jack-O-Lanterns. The pumpkin jack-o-lantern has been an essential part of Halloween celebrations since the Victorian days and today is a universal symbol of Halloween. A jack-o-lantern is a lantern, traditionally carved from a turnip, potato, or beet that was hollowed out and lit with a burning lump of coal or a candle. It is thought by some that these lanterns may be representing the souls of departed loved ones and were to serve as protection against malevolent sprits or goblins freed from the dead. Often these vegetable lanterns were placed in windows or set on porches during Halloween. Turnips and gourds were not as readily available in the Americas so the pumpkin was used and found to be quite an adequate replacement.
There are many lores and legends surrounding the origin of the Jack-O-Lantern. The most popular tale is that of a ne’er-do-well Irishman name Jack. Click HERE to read more.
After the American Civil War (1861-1865) the regular practice of trying to communicate with the dead saw a short revival, often referred to as the Spiritualist Movement. During this period people enjoyed visiting mediums or spiritualists for seances, and of course, there’s no better time than at Halloween. This may have been due in part to many families losing loved ones in the war and feeling desperate to be near them again. People would gather in the parlor around a large table, usually at the medium’s home or business. The gathering would be attended by loved ones and family members of the recently deceased soul that the medium was trying to reach. The medium would often employ several methods to convince a patron that they had communicated with the dead. They’d induce trances to speak with the dead or would write messages, supposedly from the dead (called automatic writing), and they would sometimes use a “talking board” or “witch board” to relay messages. The room would often be very dark and it was found in many cases that the room was rigged with special effects – tables and objects would move and ghostly sounds could be heard, all of this usually perpetrated by an unseen accomplice. The sessions had obviously been faked and many people found themselves misguided and broke.
With the coming of the Second Industrial Revolution (1871-1914), decorating the home for Halloween atmosphere became much more popular and the Halloween holiday shopping industry was born. Colorful wax candles created in the likenesses of ghosts, pumpkins and witches were becoming popular. Dye-cuts (colorful paper cut-outs) and paper garlands were hung in windows and on doors, just as they still are today. Skeletons, witches, scarecrows, black cats, and pumpkins were the most popular images. Also becoming popular in the states were paper mache decorations (candy and candle holders), primarily pumpkin and black cats, as well as honeycomb tissue decorations. Many of these products were being mass produced in Germany before this time. Many vintage decorations are still available but must be purchased on the secondary market and can usually be found on Ebay, the world’s largest online auction house.
Introduced in the 1880s were the delicious confection Candy Corn. Because of the tedious nature of the candy production, the candy was originally only produced seasonally, March through November. This sweet treat has remained unchanged for almost 120 years. It continues to be the most popular Halloween candy sold today and has earned its right to be called a symbol of Halloween. It is so popular that October 30th has been designated National Candy Corn Day. Candy producers now offer candy corn for other recognized holidays and production lasts all year round.
In 1890, talking boards were mass produced and offered as a parlor game sold in novelty stores. This meant that people didn’t need a medium to contact their deceased loved ones and the game started gaining popularity. In 1892 to compete with other companies, William Fuld (the then owner of Kennard Novelty Company), repackaged the board and renamed it Ouija Board, which became the modern version we know today. He renamed the company Ouija Novelty Company. All registered rights to the Ouija Board were bought by Parker Brother in 1966. Today the Ouija Board is often regarded as more than a toy and is surrounded by superstition and lore. It is still a popular game during the Halloween season.
The late 1800s brought a renewed interest in Halloween and the celebration became more family oriented than it had been before. The people of the Victorian years enjoyed a gentler Halloween, having watered it down a bit. Many families spent the holiday at home with friends and loved ones, having quaint evenings decorating and enjoying parlor games like the Ouija Board. The lighting of hearth fires replaced the ritual of bonfires. Community harvest feasts replaced feasts honoring the dead. Children were finally encouraged to participate in the festivities by dressing up in costumes and joining community parades. The tradition of begging for food and pranking continued.
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