Trick or Treat – Halloween Costumes of the 1930s

October 30th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Gerald D. Swick

“Shrieking, wailing, full of banshee mirth they ran, on everything but sidewalks, going up in the air over bushes and down almost upon yipping dogs.” – Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree (Alfred A. Knopf, 1972).

Witch. Apeman. Skeleton. Gargoyle. Beggar. Mr. Death Himself. Those were the costumes worn by Bradbury’s fictional boys in The Halloween Tree, one of his many tributes to the spookiest of holidays and his memories of trick-or-treating in the long-ago years when virtually every child in town became “Someone Hidden Behind Yet Another Mystery of Muslin and Paint,” as he expressed it.

Once-upon-a-jack o’ lantern-time all Halloween costumes were homemade – old sheets with eyeholes cut out for a ghost; some charcoal smudges on a face, and one of Dad’s shirts stuffed with a pillow created a hobo; a homemade dress and toy tiara to make some little girl a princess of the candy kingdom.

The use of pre-fab, store-bought costumes gained popularity in the 1930s – ironically, the era of the Great Depression – as community groups in the 1920s and ’30s tried to move young people away from the vandalism that had long been associated with Halloween.

So what kind of costumes were popular back in those days and how wide-spread was the commercially made costume trend? A nostalgia and history article written by Charles Brinkman for the Grafton (W.Va.) Sentinel, January 15, 1942, describes some of what had been available in that small town’s stores a few years earlier. Some outfits on that list have fallen from favor while others remain perennial.

As you might expect, Grafton’s five-and-dime stores had costumes that let youngsters dress up as clowns, devils, gypsies, hobos, jesters, pirates, witches, and ballet dancers. There was also a bellhop costume, not surprising since the “Philip Morris bellhop” advertising icon was quite popular at the time.

Today, pop culture icons like Spiderman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are in vogue with the kiddies; back then, there were Jiggs and Maggie costumes, from the popular comic strip, “Bringing Up Father.”

There were also ethnic-based costumes that would likely be considered offensive today: Negro, Jew, Chinaman, Mexican and Turk were all mentioned in the Sentinel’s article; however, let it be noted that a “Mexican costume” of sombrero and serape is available today, one of the last ethnic outfits still sold.

Dressed for Thrills; 100 Years of Halloween Costumes and Masquerade, by Phyllis Galembo (Harry N. Adams, Inc., 2002) contains a wealth of photos and descriptions of how we’ve disguised ourselves, going back to the 1800s.

About the Author: I regard historic research as a never-ending Easter egg hunt: You never know where you'll find a hidden treasure. Growing up with parents who told stories of family history probably had a lot to do with that. I realized early on that history is about lives already lived. I've met war veterans, early aviators, friends of Abraham Lincoln's in-laws, and a host of others who shared their histories with me – and it was never boring!

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