So you just burned through half an hour on Google’s FrightGeist where you found out that rabbits, pigs, and Jennifer’s Body costumes are among the top choices in Virginia. Meanwhile, CandyStore.com reveals that Virginians’ favorite Halloween candies are Hot Tamales, Snickers, and Tootsie Pops. But what did Halloween look—and taste—like in Virginia 100 years ago? Thanks to Virginia Chronicle, you can learn about the Halloween customs, costumes, and candy of 1922 as they were reported in newspapers across the state.
Halloween has long been a night for mischief, seemingly even more so a century ago. The Alexandria Gazette warned that “the streets will appear ghostly and the thousands who parade them will have absolutely no conscience and will do their best to put their fellowmen into some little innocent discomfiture.”1 In its “Wytheville News” column, the Richmond Planet reported that a Mr. Marian Watkins had received a great shock on Halloween when “he was kidnapped by a few of the fun-makers of the ghost club and hurled into a bevy of ladies.”2 Discomfiture, indeed! The Front Royal Record was pleased to report in its “Pencilagraphs” column that “‘The frost on the pumpkin’ has made it possible now to carve out the usual Hallowe’en caricatures,” but warned readers that “the night of October 31th [sic] will very likely be marked by the usual Hallowe’en pranks such as removing front gates, etc.”3 The disappearing gate was apparently a common occurrence across the state, as newspapers advised keeping watch over gates, or even taking them off their hinges in advance of the evening’s tomfoolery.
Halloween parties are by no means a new custom. In 1922, they were often newsworthy events, serving as fundraisers for local organizations as well as community gatherings at churches, schools, and clubs. In Norfolk, the New Journal and Guide ran notices about Halloween parties for the Mother’s Club and the YWCA,4 while in Alexandria, the Kiwanis Club had a Halloween dinner that featured “songs, speeches, music and noise,” as well as string confetti and “funny hats.”5 Residents in the Eastern Shore town of Painter raised $45 for the Community League at a Halloween party that included the “jolly farce ‘Dr. Cure All.’”6
Jolly or not, many activities at these parties will probably sound familiar to modern readers. Bobbing for apples and pie-eating contests were popular, for example. The Roanoke World News announced a student-organized party that planned, among other events, a Halloween hunt, peanut scramble, clog dance, and ghost story.7 In Norton, Crawford’s Weekly reported on a Halloween party cake walk in which several couples “did credit to themselves ‘tripping the light fantastic toe,’” even though they didn’t win a cake. At a different party in town, held at Hotel Norton, revelers “felt their way through dark chambers treacherous with pitfalls and noisy with frightful honks and howls.”8
According to centuries-old folklore, on Halloween you can peer into the future with the help of mirrors and apples. The Norfolk Post ran a feature titled “Stunts for Your Hollowe’en Party” that explained how to see the face of a future spouse in a candle-lit mirror or throw an apple peeling over your head to learn his or her initial. If those techniques don’t inspire confidence, try cutting open an apple to count the seeds: “Two mean an early marriage; three, a legacy; four, great wealth; five, a sea voyage; six, fame; seven, fulfillment of any wish.”9
Some Halloween customs are perhaps best left to the past, however. The Big Stone Gap Post reported on a holiday event at Radford State Normal School at which the “Home Economics girls” decorated tables in the dining hall and had each table lead an activity: “One of the most enjoyable stunts was given by the ‘fats’ and ‘leans.’ These girls are on a special diet to correct their physical deficiencies.”10
Likewise, Halloween costumes one hundred years ago made use of racist and sexist tropes that are rarely seen now. However, the organizers of the Roanoke Junior-Senior party expected a multitude of other costumes, especially because everyone had to be “disguised, masked, and have a ticket” to attend. The article records a fascinatingly extensive list of possible appearances, including Napoleon Bonaparte, George and Martha Washington, Pocahontas, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, “Count Meout” and “Lord Helpus,” a Red Cross nurse, the Faerie Queen, and Princess Virginia; “and maybe there will be some new ones, too.”11
Adults dressed up, too. The party at Hotel Norton featured “vari-styled and multi-colored costumes [that] swirled to dreamy waltzes and skipped pepfully to rampant jazz,” as well as two or three that “had a kick for jaded eyes, so that even the weariest wall-flower perked up with admiration or pious surprise.”12 Alas, no photo accompanies the article to illustrate what exactly inspired “pious surprise.” In neighboring West Virginia, the Calhoun Chronicle noted that Miss Edna Jeffreys, dressed as Rip Van Winkle, won the costume contest held by Grantsville Theatre to promote its showing of DeMille’s The Queen of Sheba.13
Before synthetics took over, paper costumes were common. The anonymous writer who warned Alexandria’s readers of missing gates also mused that Halloween “proves especially profitable to the manufacturer of paper novelties and disguises” because “humans like to disguise for some unknown reason” and “only a few of the more sophisticated personalities remain as they are.”14 Every century has its curmudgeons, apparently. The Norfolk Post assured readers, “No matter how inexpertly you may handle a needle and thread, you can fashion a costume yourself” by using crepe paper or cheesecloth on top of an old slip. Follow a pattern obtained at local “favor counters,” and voila, you can become a flower! (Or a vegetable, “if you prefer to go as a turnip”).15
While the tradition of children’s trick-or-treating would not take its current form, nor be so sugar-infused, until after World War II, Virginians in 1922 certainly expected food to be a part of their Halloween celebrations. Candy is rarely mentioned as a Halloween treat, except occasionally in a list of other sweets available at a party. Shepherd’s, a shop along Richmond’s Broad Street, advertised “creamy centered candies…packed in special Hallowe’en boxes” and “fancy cakes in Hallowe’en designs, cream mints, Hallowe’en colors.” To the delight of children across the city, they also pitched “sweets for the kiddies in hard candies—pure, wholesome and healthful.”16 Tell that to your dentist!
A rhymed announcement in “The Social Events of Batna Vicinity” let readers know the local Halloween party would have “Oysters, candy, pickle and pie / All of these for you to buy.”17 Oysters, in fact, were one of the most frequently mentioned holiday foods. At the Halloween social in Atlantic, Virginia, people could expect “ice cream, cake, oysters, etc.” served by costumed waitresses. Afterward, the oysters and cream were declared especially delicious, perhaps contributing to the successful “financial side” of the event.18
Beyond the Eastern Shore, oysters were perhaps less common, but people all over the state consumed hot dogs, peanuts, cookies, and pie, and drank apple cider and beer. Banana splits were a special treat in Norton, perhaps made with “The Velvet Kind” brand of ice cream in the Halloween flavors of pumpkin, apple, and ear corn, as advertised in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.19 On the other hand, the people of Painter were just happy that Halloween social refreshments “were dispensed in liberal portions,”20 which sounds like a timeless holiday sentiment for sure.
4“Community Service,” 14 October 1922, 4; “Blue Triangle News,” 14 October 1922, 6. The New Journal and Guide is not available on Virginia Chronicle, but Library of Virginia account holders can access it through ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Black Newspaper Collection, available on the Library’s database page.