A Glimpse Into the History of Halloween in the Lakes Area
Writer / Jeff Kenney
The vast majority of Lakes Magazine readers likely associate childhood Halloweens with one prominent memory: that of trick-or-treating. But it was not always so, and in fact, the widespread practice of community participation in an organized trick-or-treating endeavor is a relatively recent phenomenon, here and nationally.
All of which begs a few questions (at least for those of us who ponder such things, especially from a local and regional historical angle). First, just what was Halloween like a century ago in the lakes and surrounding areas? And when did the “old” give way to the present-day practice of a fairly rigid, predetermined two-hour window of trick-or-treat fun for children?
The Old Days
These pages aren’t the venue for an extensive look back at the genesis and development of Halloween as we know it today, but by way of a basic historical overview, the holiday’s name derives from the fact that it falls on the eve of a Christian feast day, which dates back to the fairly early centuries of Christianity.
All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows (“saint” deriving from the Latin “sanctus” or “sanctified,” i.e. “set apart” or “holy”), was and is a celebration of the collective body of Christians held to be dwelling in the presence of God in glory…otherwise known as saints. There are a host of misconceptions and regularly repeated historical inaccuracies tying All Saints to the ancient, non-Christian holiday of Samhain – a claim for which virtually no ancient attestation exists. But again…a discussion for a different article entirely.
All Saints’, like many of the highest, holiest feasts in the ancient Church, was associated with the divide between the earthly and eternal realms being “thinner” than at other times of year (note the older, now largely-forgotten practice of telling ghost stories during Christmastide as one example). Also, like other feasts, All Saints’ was often observed with practices like costumed events, folk or humorous plays, or “mumming” (Twelfth Night, or the feast of the Three Kings, is another example, as is Mardi Gras, as the eve of the start of Lent).
The ancient Christian focus on the end of life and eternal destination of the soul ostensibly led to a variety of practices associated with depicting the conflict between good and evil, which brings us to one common practice that has largely gone by the wayside in contemporary American life: that of widespread pranks, sometimes quite destructive.
As early as 1780, Scottish poet John Mayne, in his poem “Halloween,” described “fearful pranks” taking place, and (bringing it closer to home for Lakes Magazine readers) an article dating as far back as 1883 in the Fort Wayne Daily News warns that “the sportive boys of Fort Wayne will be up to their usual pranks, and cabbages which have not been spiked down are liable to be carried out of the lot and thrown against doors.”
Signs were likely to be changed and gates removed, the article further suggested, and a similar piece the following year, 1884, in the Edinburgh Daily Courier warned of both “lads and lassies” engaging in mischief, with the “wise man” admonished to “take in his well, chain down his outhouses and gates, or guard over them all night with a shotgun loaded to the muzzle with bird shot, pepper, and salt…”
Such advice was at times taken seriously, as evidenced by an incident many years later in 1944 in Elgin, Illinois, where a group of children, evidently still holding to the older-world form of trick-or-treating, unsuccessfully sought treats at a house and proceeded to pelt it with corn (a common “trick” in response to the absence of a “treat” in those days). The homeowner rounded the corner with a shotgun loaded with dried split peas and opened fire, with 12-year-old Marilyn Lange receiving a number of peas to her “lower extremities” (that is, the last part of her still rounding the corner in retreat from the house, according to the article), causing her to be hospitalized.
As an aside, the aforementioned 1883 Fort Wayne article dedicated most of its space to another lost tradition associated with Halloween and various other Christian feasts as observed in more superstitious times and realms: the opportunity for young men and women to foretell their future romantic prospects through odds and ends of folk means similar to divination.
That said, the more wholesome and widespread observations of Halloween a century ago in the lakes area were dedicated, as was the case around the country, to Halloween-themed parties and events.
A survey of the Munster Times newspapers from the month of October 1923 reveals Halloween parties thrown by virtually every social entity and organization in the area, from the Hammond Elks to the Munster Boy Scouts, country clubs to individual party hosts. Gary businessmen donated prizes for the best costume for a costume parade organized by a local park policeman (and indeed, Halloween costume parades and civic contests were widespread into the 1940s and beyond). A Hammond department store offered black and orange jelly beans and pumpkins for your Halloween party needs. Down the street, the Straube Piano & Music Company of Hammond offered the latest spooky-themed 78 records to be purchased in time for Halloween parties.
On the other end of lakes area-geography, Fisher’s Drug Store in Bremen offered party favors, masks and novelties for Halloween parties, and a Halloween box supper and carnival was held at the Argos schoolhouse on October 28.
Another highlight of Halloween night, 1923, in Argos involved 26 members of the Friendship Class club attending a party at the home of Mrs. L.N. Scafer, which included contests, rope walking, pumpkin shooting and fortune telling.
In Culver, the annual Lions Club children’s Halloween party of the 1940s carried on the town tradition from earlier years of an outdoor costume parade that was eventually brought indoors to the elementary school gymnasium, where a Lions-sponsored costume contest and cash prizes still persist to this day.
During those earlier years, the practice of seeking treats to ward off juvenile “tricks” was slowly gaining popularity in America and the Midwest.
As with the origins of Halloween itself, there are a variety of assertions about the genesis of trick-or-treating in centuries past, but the tradition of “guising,” or moving from house to house at Halloween while putting on a mini performance, to be rewarded with food or treats, dates to Scotland and Ireland at least as of the 16th century (and again, it bears strong resemblance to the “mumming” of Twelfth Night and other Christian holy days).
Most sources say the earliest documented manifestations of the practice among children in North America date officially to 1911 in the province of Ontario, Canada. The use of the term “trick or treat” was recorded six years later in the same province, in 1917, though specific phrasing in the ensuing years varied considerably depending upon location and time frame, with alternate terms appearing such as “treat up or tricks,” “treat or tricks,” and “tricks or treats” (the latter was used, in fact, in the legendary 1966 animated TV special, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”).
As Halloween mischief only grew during the Great Depression of the 1930s, at times involving acts of vandalism or violence, one theory holds that adult-organized trick-or-treating grew as a response to the situation during that era. However, sugar rationing during the World War II years of the 1940s curtailed the availability of treats to hand out, slowing the rise in popularity of organized trick-or-treating.
By the late war and postwar years, trick-or-treating was increasingly becoming the norm in the lakes area and the country as a whole, though the transition from the old pranks and All Hallows eve mischief was a gradual one.
Lakes-area newspapers saw a flurry of letters to the editor taking sides in a debate over whether costumed children seeking apples and other simple treats on Halloween night constituted “begging” and should be disallowed. One East Chicago, Indiana, mother wrote in 1945, in response to such a letter, that her own parents first took her out in costume on Halloween night in 1923 seeking treats, and that she was continuing the tradition.
A 1947 Richmond, Indiana, article titled “Trick or Treat and it was All in Fun as Young and Old Celebrate Halloween,” noted that “children and adults littered the streets with corn as they strolled up and down the town in their wildest Halloween garb,” suggesting that the old corn-throwing “trick” was normalized to the extent that it only barely merited mention!
In 1950, The Culver Citizen noted that the previous year’s “trick or treating” was still accompanied by “window soaping” directed by some youngsters at houses where treats weren’t provided. Town officials asked parents to help curtail such practices and reminded them that children under 16 had a 10 p.m. curfew to be off the streets.
One game-changing factor that contributed significantly to the more organized and benign trends in trick-or-treating of today was the advent of Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF, which gained widespread popularity in the mid-1950s.
Housewife and mother Mary Emma Allison concocted the notion of collecting money for undernourished children around the world on Halloween alongside treats, when she saw a UNICEF booth collecting for funds in 1949 in her Philadelphia neighborhood. By 1953, the U.S. committee for UNICEF began promoting the practice, which became ubiquitous nationally by the 1960s, earning a Nobel Peace Prize and praise from U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.
The Culver Citizen reported, in its edition on October 24, 1956, on a trend many communities were establishing around that time. Rather than completely replacing the traditional treat-seeking of Halloween night, a designated UNICEF trick-or-treat night was established on October 29, during which individual children or families, or groups such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts or church groups, would canvass neighborhoods for coins for UNICEF. Interestingly, the Town of Culver established that both October 30 and 31 would be set aside for traditional candy-seeking trick-or-treating.
As was the case for many years, no specific time frame was given for trick-or-treating, though in later decades most municipalities would establish set hours, usually just a two-hour time frame, for costumed candy-seeking.
As awareness grew of injuries and deaths from children – often in dark, hard-to-see costumes – being hit by cars during trick-or-treat hours, more recent decades have also seen the official time frame scaled back, from generally still taking place after dark in decades past, to a daylight-to-dusk time frame (5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in many lakes-area communities).
Of course, candy and costume companies have capitalized over the years upon the standardization of trick-or-treating as an organized and widespread community event. Perhaps ironically, a holiday once associated with a Christian feast and/or punctuated by widespread acts of mischief has become the nation’s second-largest commercial holiday after Christmas.
All things considered, the majority of Americans are likely none too remorseful that the oft-repeated “trick or treat” from the mouths of lakes-area youngsters on Halloween night this year is merely an expression…and no longer a threat.
Jeff Kenney is museum-archives manager for Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana.