Authentic Victorian How-To for Halloween Decorations

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This article was originally featured on Arra Abella's Style Reader as a guest post promoting my novel A White Room. It's a very cute and posh book review blog so check it out when you have the chance.

The following turn of the century Halloween festivities were taken from an article in the October 25, 1903 edition of The Sunday Herald of Syracuse, New York. The article is titled “Halloween: Unique and Ghost-Like Decorations” and is an account of a Halloween party for adults, focusing specifically on the decorations.

Also check out my post on Victorian Halloween Games and Charms based on a second article from the October 25, 1903 edition of The Sunday Herald of Syracuse, New York. It was titled “Halloween: What to do on this Witching Eve,” and is an instruction for a witch themed party for young unmarried girls. It includes detailed descriptions of Halloween “charms” or what we would call spells, most of which were designed to determine the girls’ future husbands.

Victorian Halloween Decorations for a Turn of the Century Party
The writer of the article explained that this was a party he actually attended, and it is given from his perspective. When he asked the hostess where she got the ideas for the decorations, she said she had thought them up on the spur of the moment.

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Outside of the house, yellow jack-o-lanterns and squash hung from plazas. They included a lamp and had eyes, noses, and grins carved into them. The author of this article writes about the jack-o-lantern faces in a way that suggests it may have been a novelty, at least to him.

Just at the door stood a tall wooden figure draped in black sheets. It had red eyes, a nose, and a grinning mouth. The author commented that the figure “suspiciously looked like a photographer’s lantern on a jag.” Chains bound the hands of the figure and also hung from the door, making it rattle as guests entered the house.

Inside, the only light came from green flames burning in tin plates. The flame came from alcohol sitting on a bed of salts. The writer commented that the flames made the guests’ faces glow green, a color that was “subconsciously associated with ghosts.” Inside the library there were more of these plates with green flames, which the author then commented created a mood that “was enough to conjure up his Satanic Majesty to the ‘flow of soul’ about to begin.” The author’s remark about the devil being conjured suggests lighthearted references to the satan were common during Halloween even at this time period. This may disprove a common conception that the Victorians were too religious for the darker side of Halloween.

Cushions were strewn about the floor for the guests in the library. When the green flames flickered out, someone lit the fireplace, and attendees began telling ghost stories. Each guest had been instructed to bring a ghost story or be “threatened with violent ejection.” The author commented that the stories were so frightening more than one person screamed when an alarm clock went off in the middle of it. He also commented that it was surprising how many guests had brought alarm clocks for this purpose. After the stories had ended, electric lights flickered on to reveal popping corn, games, and refreshments.

The author then goes into a long list of party favors suitable for a Halloween party. It was difficult to discern whether or not all of these favors were at the party he attended or if these were examples of what could be done at a party.

Some of the objects described as party favors were more games as opposed to gifts. Dainty salt cellars with tiny spoons could be provided, so guests could stand in a place they have never stood before, eat a bit of salt, and make a wish. Little mugs or cups could be filled with water and accompanied by paper cutouts of the alphabet as “Every properly educated girl knows that the initial of her future husband will be the only letter that can be depended upon to float.”

Several Halloween souvenirs were described and they all seemed to include messages. There were small bits of silver beaten into favors, like miniature frames in odd shapes from abroad and accompanied with a note saying, “May it be your fate to travel double.” The writer described desk scales with the motto “Don’t weigh your friends in the balance,” and collapsible lanterns with the message “The light fails when you are absent,” along with boxes for holding cord with the message “Always have a string to your kite.” Other gifts included devil paperweights, gnome and toadstool inkstands, and rabbit designs for keeping away ghosts.

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