“A paste-pot, some orange and black cardboard and crepe paper, white and black ribbon and a lively imagination can produce wonders in the way of creating a spooky atmosphere” for your Halloween party, assured Tribune reporter Sally Lunn in a 1929 article.1 Using these humble materials, anyone can make impressive Halloween party decorations—including you, dear readers! 🙂
MAKE A DRAMATIC ENTRANCEHalloween parties in the early 20th century were all about giving your guests a thrilling, fun, and atmospheric experience—and for many, that began right at the front door. Here’s some advice from the Tribune regarding how to decorate your home:
“A unique way to decorate the house is to have nothing but pumpkins for lights when the guests first arrive, with a witch in the hall or on the stairs to direct the guests where wraps may be removed…”2
Or instead of jack-o-lanterns, why not try greeting your guests with nothing at all? Remember those elaborate invitation instructions I mentioned in my previous post, where the guests had to keep their invitation a secret and not speak to one another? Well this is what they found when they arrived to the party:
“…the side door…seemed to open of itself, no one appearing. They filed in silently through the dark hall, one by one, into a little ante-room, where only one person was at a time and where each was given a card. From here they passed into the dining room, where the light was so dim that they were just able to find the first chair to hand without recognizing any of their companions. No one said a word, no one knew who else was there.”3
Most parties, however, had some kind of spooky greeter to guide guests into the home. For one children’s “ghost party,” guests were admitted by:
“…a figure draped in white with a white mask over her face, who silently pointed to the stairs; when they reached the top of the stairs another ghostly figure pointed to the rooms where they were to leave their wraps.”4
Some hosts got a bit more creative. One reader who wrote in to the Tribune described his notable entry into a Halloween party, with tons of great sensory details:
“The house was dark except for a couple of jack-o-lanterns on the porch. On entering, one shook hands with a ghost with cold, clammy hands. On going farther, a multitude of hands reached out and tripped you, shapes flitted about here and there, and a vacuum cleaner in an adjoining room made a weird noise which was…startling…”5
THEMED INTERIORS AND HOMEMADE DECORATIONS
Spookiness isn’t everything, though. Maybe you’ve decided to go with a themed party instead, rather than trying to scare your guests. If you’re doing that, then to be truly vintage, you’d better be sure all your decorations match! Check out this elaborate description of a harvest-themed Halloween party that was held in a barn in 1910:
“The floor of the barn was a roomy one, and had been swept clean…Across the entrance was hung a row of lanterns imitating witches’ heads, that were most effective when lighted. Gay bunting and flags, branches of brilliant autumn leaves, standards of corn, and sheaves of wheat, piles of rosy red apples, and yellow pumpkins were so placed about the walls and floor as to give the barn a festive appearance, while the entire place was lighted by paper lanterns imitating pumpkin jack-o-lanterns, and hanging from a small tree that was placed in each corner of the big room a rustic log lantern glowed comically at the guests.”6
Not all Halloween parties were elaborate themed affairs, of course. Most people (i.e., not the rich) had much more low key parties where the decorations were a hodgepodge of store-bought and homemade. This exhaustive 1915 list of decoration ideas contains both kinds of items, and gives a pretty good idea of what a middle-class Edwardian parlor might have looked like during Halloween:
“Decorations next! Let them be as grewsome as your imagination, assisted by suggestions, can conjure up. Pumpkin and skeleton lanterns furnish the proper amount of light for such an evening….spider webs…are easily constructed out of white cord and from these made spiders should be suspended. Just stuff crepe paper spider shapes with cotton and use hat wire for their legs….buy some 5 cent fish globes. Hold over a lighted kerosene lamp and blacken inside. Draw grotesque faces in them by rubbing off the soot. Light by dropping in an electric bulb, and the result will be weird enough for the bravest. A marvelous witches’ cauldron can be made from twigs and a real black kettle. Cover the electric light with red paper and by the least stretch of imagination you can feel the warm rays. Instead of the regular curtain drapes, use yellow cheesecloth…besides the pumpkins, witches, cats, and spiders, apples form a needed article both for decorative and entertainment purposes.”7
As you can see from the photo above, during the 1910s many party-givers started incorporating new commercial items, like paper lanterns, into their Halloween decorating, often combining them with older staples, such as in the following example:
“The mantel in the first room was decorated with yellow crepe paper covered with black cats and owls, and piled with ears of corn. Queer little Halloween figures were placed amongst the corn. The mantel in the other room was draped with Halloween paper napkins, at each corner were two small pumpkin lanterns, and scattered over the mantel were more of the queer little figures…”8
It would take until the Jazz Age, however, for the mass-produced decorations to really take over in a new and crazy way.
DECORATING IN THE JAZZ AGE: EXPLORING THE DENISSON “BOGIE BOOKS”
By the 1920s, people were already bemoaning the lack of originality in Halloween decorations. “There is little novelty in decoration for Halloween parties,” whined a Tribune reporter in 1922, “for no one seems to want to depart from the traditional jack-o-lanterns, black cats, witches and others that hold revel that night.”9 The stereotypical imagery of Halloween, it seems, had become old hat in a relatively short amount of time, largely thanks to the “Golden Age of Postcards.”
“The spirit and imagery of Halloween in America has never been so vividly documented as it was during the first decades of the twentieth century, thanks to the popular medium of picture postcards” wrote David J. Skal in Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween.10 During the Golden Age of Postcards (roughly 1907-1915), an explosion of Halloween postcards flooded the public’s imagination with jack-o-lanterns, black cats, witches, goblins, ghosts, skeletons, bats, and more—and helped to cement them as Halloween icons for decades to come.
By the mid 1900s, then, not only did everyone agree what kinds of things should be part of your Halloween decorations, but you could also buy a number of them commercially, rather than making everything yourself. This Tribune ad gives an idea of what you could buy at the store to decorate your Halloween party:
Not everyone wanted a stereotypical Halloween party, though, especially during the Roaring Twenties, when novelty and elegance was all the rage. So, for those people—and anyone else who shared an unholy love for crepe paper—there were The Bogie Books, which were chock full of suggestions that could turn your humdrum Halloween party from this…
…Into this! 😀
This flapper-riddled insanity is courtesy of Dennison Paper Manufacturing Company, which began producing Bogie Books in 1909,. An innovative combination of craft magazine and product catalog, Dennison’s Bogie Books offered suggestions on how to use their paper products—crepe paper, printed paper items, napkins and so forth—to decorate homes, parties, and yourself for Halloween.11
Filled with images of “sophisticated flappers with bobbed hair cavorting in decorated ballrooms,” the Dennison books are fun to look at, if not always realistic.12 Check out these design plans for ballrooms, clubs, and other large spaces, transforming them with tissue paper, crepe paper, cardboard die-cuts, and other flimsy stuff into strange, colorful things:
But ballrooms and clubs weren’t all you could decorate with Dennison products. There was also your house–and everything in it, too! “Furniture and other accessories may…easily become the most interesting part of the decorations,” says The Bogie Book of 1926. “The floor lamp, radio speaker, davenport, chairs, mirrors, scrap baskets, umbrellas and even brooms and dry mops can be utilized as foundations for all sorts of interesting and grotesque decorations.” I mean, just see how much flair this Halloween stuff adds to your home decor. Here’s the fireplace:
Or try this lovely couch set up:
And don’t leave your household objects out of the fun!
You could even do themed parties, if you wanted, though they were a little stranger than one might expect. Check out this page from the 1926 Bogie Book, which features a “pirate’s den” that looks literally nothing like one:
Thanks to their strange mix of glamorous Gatsby-esque parties and homegrown crepe paper nightmares (that loudspeaker/pumpkin-cat-bowtie thing is just no), Bogie Books are still popular today. Considered “classics of their kind,” and they are “highly prized by collectors,” if websites like this are any judge, and originals still sell for a pretty penny.13
Unfortunately, the images they depict have little to do with historical reality. Party depictions like this one…
….are much more fantasy than reality. Such parties, Skal notes, look like a “posh harlequinade that Jay Gatsby might…throw at East Egg,” where guests “slouch around in forced, art-deco poses…and everybody makes a grand entrance”.14 All their costumes are “the obvious work of professional designers, apparently under the influnence of Erte. Nonetheless, three quarters of a century before Martha Stewart, Dennison effectively marketed the fantasy of a perfectly controlled and perfectly stylish Halloween within the reach of everyone”15—provided you like crepe paper, of course. 😉
Either way, they’re still really fun to look at—and they totally work for inspirational purposes! 😀
MAKE YOUR OWN VINTAGE DECORATIONS:
While you can always buy vintage reproductions or actual antiques to give your Halloween party a vintage look, it’s actually easier to add vintage flair in other ways. Most of it comes down to design choices, really, rather than expensive materials or any extensive prep.
Here are some ways to give your party a nice vintage look without breaking the bank:
- Get yourself some black and orange crepe paper streamers. As I’ve said in other posts, the Jazz Age had an unnatural love of crepe paper. Embrace this right from the start, and you’re well on your way to creating a vintage look for your Halloween party.
- Put jack-o-lanterns everywhere—lighting the path to your door, sitting in your windows, or on your porch. Use white pumpkins too, and be sure to paint scary faces on them with black paint.16
- Make a “beware” sign, or some other kind of appropriately spooky sign, with a similar style to the fonts on vintage Halloween postcards, or even borrow a phrase from one to paint on your sign, and be sure to put it by your door or fence.17
- Drape white sheets over objects near your windows to make them look like ghostly figures.18
- ….Or try any of the crafting ideas in the Tribune articles I’ve mentioned earlier! 🙂
If you do nothing else, however, I suggest taking a look at the Dennison Bogie Books, mostly because they’re fun, and full of vintage imagery you could easily adapt to something else. Unfortunately, not all of them are free (some jerk even got the copyrights to one of them somehow and is selling it on Amazon), but a decent chunk of them are available free online. Try these links:
There’s also this list of different Dennison decoration books, with other holidays besides Halloween, and all from different years.
Best of luck with your vintage decorations, dear readers! 🙂