Congratulations, dear readers! What with the invitations mailed and the house decorated, you’re almost ready to hold your vintage Halloween party! Now you just need one more thing: food! Lucky for you, vintage Halloween fare is simple to prepare…though not all of it is the kind of stuff you’d see on a party tray today. No need to worry, though—there are all sorts of recipes to choose from below. But first, you’ll need to…
Step One: Decorate Your Table
“No matter how simple or elaborate the decorating in the living room, the table itself must be a bright spot of color,” says the 1926 version of the Dennison Bogie Book. While that generally meant that everything should be covered in as much orange and black crepe paper as possible…
…many hosts and hostesses from the early 1900s through the Jazz Age took a different decorative tack, incorporating vegetables, flowers and fruit to create an “old-fashioned,” rustic decor that evoked the Autumn harvest, with pumpkins, apples, dried corn stalks, autumn leaves, fall flowers like chrysanthemums and various nuts all making an appearance.
A 1905 book recommends this layout for an “old-fashioned” buffet-style table set up, which incorporates many of the aforementioned items:
“Refreshments should be served on a highly polished oak or mahogany table covered with fall leaves arranged as mats. In the centre of the table put a small table mirror on a mat of brown chestnut leaves. In the center of the mirror stand a large brown jug or pitcher filled with tiny old-fashioned chrysanthemums, red and yellow. Towards the end of the table make large mats of leaves and pile on them beautifully polished apples. Cut sheets of tin in squares of about nine or ten inches, roll the corners to give the appearance of flat cake dishes. Fill these with doughnuts, ginger cookies and sand tarts. At one end of the table, on a large tray, place a jug of cider and glasses or stone mugs. Have plain brown bread and butter sandwiches, a large wooden bowl full of cracked nuts. Another filled with smoking hot boiled chestnuts will be brought in during supper. Serve on wooden plates…and…use brown paper napkins.”—Mrs. Rorer’s Every Day Menu Book (1905), page 242 and page 243
By the 1910s, pumpkins took center stage as table decorations. In a 1914 article, for example, Jane Eddington of the Tribune says a pumpkin can “be carved into baskets for fruits—brilliant clusters of grapes and rosy apples and pears being the most suitable…with autumn leaves, perhaps” and thus turned into a fine centerpiece.1 She also mentions in passing an entirely different way to decorate a pumpkin that doesn’t involve much carving, but does involve using extra vegetables in interesting ways:
“In carving a pumpkin and fixing it up, a question that faces us is as to how grotesque we shall make it. I think that to make the jack-o-lantern too grotesque is to lose some of the real charm we might put into it. Therefore, instead of a red pepper for a nose, as is common, we cut out a carrot, allowing for an ample Roman quality. Little discs of carrots were also used to make the eyes expressive, and carrot pegs for teeth.”2
Even shop-keepers got involved in this act, apparently: “The grocers last year did some wonderful carving with cranberries set in for eyebrows, red cabbage leaves for tongues, teeth of kernels of corn, or other vegetable decorations.”3
A 1910 Tribune article suggests a similar set-up as well:
“in the center of the table be placed a large jack-o-lantern or a large pumpkin hollowed out and filled with fruit. Another good center piece is a small sheaf of wheat surrounded by all sorts of harvest vegetables, and in the center, peeping saucily out, a small jack-o-lantern. A candelabra made of apples raised on a standard and streamers of strung pumpkin seeds for a canopy over a jack-o-lantern head makes a good center piece…”4
Other table centerpieces were interactive, offering guests party favors or fortunes along with their food. Check out this example from a 1904 copy of The Good Housekeeping Hostess, which incorporates fortune-telling:
“An appropriate centerpiece for the Halloween supper table may consist of small paper mache jack-o-lanterns and splendid chrysanthemums arranged alternately around a mammoth pumpkin carved into a basket. The basket is filled with the shells of mandarin oranges, and is passed to the guests. Each shell contains an article—a penny, a heart, a bachelor’s button, tiny china cat, etc., etc. These are supposed to carry a meaning prophetic of the recipient’s future.”—The Good Housekeeping Hostess (1904), page 250
Another 1910s centerpiece also involved fortunes, but used a cabbage and flowers instead of a pumpkin:
“The centerpiece was made by placing a cabbage, which had curling leaves, in a shallow glass dish, and into the leaves of the cabbage sticking flowers, on the stems of which were curled slips of paper containing a ‘fortune’ for each guest.”5
For a children’s Halloween party, Tribune reporter Ada M. Krecker suggests another fortune-telling centerpiece in the form of a pumpkin, something called a “jack-o-lantern surprise”:
“…select a large, round turnip pumpkin, and carefully remove the top, keeping it whole for Jack’s hat. Next hollow out all of the inside possible, and cut triangular eyes, nose, and mouth. The favors will suggest the future lot of the boy or girl who receives them; a ring for the one who will first be married, a horseshoe for good luck, a thimble for an old maid, a penny for riches, etc. These favors are wrapped in yellow tissue paper, tied with long strands of raffia, and packed in the pumpkin. The raffia is used instead of ribbons for pulling the gifts and gives the effect of hair.”6
See the pumpkin in the center with all the ribbons coming out of it? What do you want to bet it’s some form of the “jack-o-lantern surprise” game? Photo Source: Vintage Everyday
Other hosts eschewed food entirely, however. One clever hostess (the same one who gave secret invitations) surprised her guests with a very different kind of feast:
“The supper table drew quantities of attention, especially as it became evident that it held absolutely nothing to eat, despite its generous burdens of cakes, pies, and fruit. There were apples and oranges of silk and paper with printed fortunes pinned to their stems or buried inside; there were cups of chocolate, as they seemed, but which proved to have cotton cream on top and fortune beans below. There were tomato pin cushions and emery strawberries and sachet crackers, all in plates and baskets. A big pie at one end held brooms of fortune, which were wee wisps of straw with silver handles.”7
By the 1920s, however, most hosts had given up on such time-consuming, homemade table decorations. Instead, they preferred to use exciting new mass-produced items that could be bought in stores and put together with ease. As a result, Halloween supper tables were less about presenting the autumn’s bounty and more about cramming as many matching place-cards, patterned napkins, candy holders and die-cut cardboard centerpieces on the table as you could.
This 1929 Tribune photo depicts a typical Halloween supper table from the Jazz Age. Note the large amounts of commercially made decorations, many of which were selected to match some kind of theme (in this case, a black cat):
Dennison’s Bogie Books reinforced the trend towards store-bought materials with their highly coordinated table decorations. Check these out. A bit eye-watering, aren’t they? 😉
This selection of candy cups, serving cups, and various wrapped food (number 1 is wrapped around a doughnut, and number 6 involves an orange somehow) shows some different ways people could adapt pre-made items into their decorations. Photo Source: 1920 Bogie Book
…But table decorations are only part of the meal. You still need the most important part: the food! 🙂
Step Two: Set Your Halloween Menu
In the past, Halloween parties were considered highly informal affairs, where “normal” dinner rules were suspended in favor of serving simple foods that could be eaten while playing a game or dancing. As a result, most celebrations included the following foods:
- Pumpkin was always on the menu in some form, often as a pie or custard
- Apples and nuts (particularly walnuts and chestnuts) were always on the table somewhere. Besides being tasty and easy to eat, they could also be used to play a large variety of fortune-telling games
- Apple cider was a traditional offering at most tables, as was coffee
- Doughnuts were also pretty common, with candy coming later on. Candy was often part of each guest’s place setting, presented in a cute holiday container of some kind
- Sandwiches, rather than elaborate dishes, were a mainstay throughout the early 20th century even for fancier parties, with many different and unusual fillings
- Orange and black foods, particularly carrots and mushrooms, were frequently served for their festive color rather than anything else (after all, your food had to match your decorations! 😉 )
Most of this food was presented buffet-style as well. Since most parties emphasized boisterous group games, fortune-telling, and dancing, it made sense to give guests foods that were easy to eat while doing something else. The fact that a lot of these foods could also be used for many fortune-telling games (the apples and chestnuts in particular) was an added bonus for the host.
Suggested holiday menus of the time reflected this kind of informality as well. While the earlier menus were slightly more elaborate due to the tastes of the time period, there is a definite trend towards simpler and simpler fare as things progress. Note the relative simplicity of the following holiday menus, from 1904 to 1926…
For a 1904 children’s party:
Baked apples, jellied with whipped cream.
Doughnuts, gingerbread animals.
Decorated apples were part of this 1907 Halloween menu:
“There was chicken salad, served in apples made into jack-o-lanterns, sandwiches of finely chopped chestnuts, with mayonnaise, ham sandwiches, sweet cider…and coffee.”9
For a rustic Halloween party in 1910, this menu was suggested:
“…the menu should be as simple as possible, with piles of doughnuts on old fashioned blue plates…bread and butter sandwiches, old time pumpkin pies…tankards and pitchers full of cider. Coffee may be served, too, if desired…if a salad is served, place it in the hallowed out head of a cabbage.”10
For an “informal” 1915 Halloween party:
“Creamed chestnuts in ramekins.
Peppers stuffed with veal.
Hot rolls. Celery.
Apple salad with cheese wafers.
Pistachio charlotte russe. Walnut cake.
For a 1915 Halloween luncheon, things get a bit fancier:
Creamed oysters in cases.
Curried eggs in rice.
Chicken breasts with Italian chestnuts.
Sunshine ice cream and cake.
By the 1920s, however, things were even simpler, with sandwiches becoming a common menu item. Note the large amount of sandwiches in the following 1920 menus from one of the Dennison Bogie Books:
Stuffed apple salad
Nut bread sandwiches
Brown bread and cream
Cider.”—1920 Bogie Book
This menu from 1922 is also pretty simple, and still includes sandwiches:
Doughnuts, Cider.”—-The Bogie Book (1922), pg. 10
A suggested Halloween buffet supper from 1926:
“Cream cheese and nut sandwiches.
Preserved ginger sandwiches.
Salted nuts.”—The Bogie Book (1926), pg. 10
But just because your menu was simple, that didn’t mean you had to skip out on the presentation! Many vintage Halloween recipes have a strong playful element to them, like sandwiches with little cat faces, tiny pumpkin cakes, and other fun decorative elements. See what I mean by checking out the unusual recipes below.
Step Three: Get Cooking! Vintage Halloween Recipes
“What shall we serve at the Halloween party this year? It must be new and different, yet at the same time appropriate to the occasion. Unique refreshments, with something in the nature of a surprise, are being sought by every hostess who is planning to entertain on Halloween,” writes Alice Fewell in volume 24 of American Cookery, circa 1915. Such surprises abound in the following vintage recipes, which could easily add an element of whimsy at your own party table.
~ STARTERS ~
Unlike today’s parties, Halloween parties of the past rarely featured appetizers or dips. Instead, meals would start with soups and salads, often presented in a festive manner. Here are some fun examples:
HALLOWEEN SALAD (1904):
This Halloween Salad from The Good Housekeeping Hostess involves hollowing out a cabbage, decorating it with cloves, and filing it with an apple and nut salad similar to a Waldorf Salad.
WITCH SALAD (1921):
The Tribune’s own Jane Eddington (whose recipes have appeared on this blog before) contributed this simple egg salad with a “devilish” twitch in 1921:
WITCHES’ SOUP (1921):
Eddington contributed another recipe for a black bean soup, in keeping with an orange and black color scheme.
“Thin slices of carrots cut in fancy shapes” would also be an appropriate garnish, and in keeping with the orange and black theme.13
WITCH FACE SALAD (1929):
As Tribune reporter Sally Lunn notes, “an appetizing salad could be made in the semblance of a witch’s face,” if one was clever with their ingredients.14 “The black hat” could be “a triangular shaped piece of toast…spread with caviar,” and “a slice of tomato spread with cream cheese and marked with green pepper” could make the face.15
~ ENTREES ~
As evidenced in the menus earlier, what constitues an “entree” in a vintage Halloween menu is a bit up for grabs. While sandwiches predominated, cold-cut meats and even barbecue were potentially on the menu as well. One popular way to jazz up any food item, as was hinted at in Eddington’s Witch Salad, was to “devil” it by adding some kind of hot spice to it. Eddington cautions against this, however, saying that “all of these things are more or less indegestible or injurious. Too hot dishes call too much blood to the surface of the stomach” and cause stomach ache.16 If one must have something spicy, Eddington recommends “horseradish sandwiches, small but not too biting” instead of adding something like Cayenne pepper to a dish.17 One example of a “deviled” food, however, follows in this 1921 recipe:
Sandwiches, which were easy to eat and could be filled with all kinds of sweet and savory spreads, were a popular item at any vintage Halloween supper table. Besides being easy to make for busy hostesses, they could also be decorated in fun ways to add to the festivities. Here are a few vintage sandwich options:
Chestnut Sandwiches: Roasted chestnuts were a popular Halloween item, seeing as they could be used to predict future lovers in certain fortune-telling games, so it’s no surprise that they’d also end up in a sandwich. This 1916 recipe is a good example of this kind of sandwich:
Cinnamon Sandwiches: Selected for their “dark” color, cinnamon sandwiches were to be toasted quickly to be soft in the center and crispy on the edges. The filling consisted of powdered sugar, “one part cinnamon to eight of powdered sugar,” which was sprinkled over buttered toast and then combined into a sandwich. Cinnamon drop candies were sometimes added as well for extra flavor, or as a decorative element, like for making a “face” on the bread.18
“Deviled” Cheese Sandwich Filling: This cheese filling was submitted to the Tribune by a school principal, and actually sounds pretty good. You could probably make something similar today with Velveeta, I imagine. The recipe is as follows:
1 pound of soft yellow cheese
2 to 3 well-beaten eggs
1/2 cup of cream
Salt, pepper, and paprika
- Mix the cream and eggs together, then grate the cheese and combine in a pot.
- Put contents over stove and cook until melted.
- Remove from stove and add salt, pepper, and paprika to taste.
- Pour into a jar and allow to cool. Should have a consistency of “soft butter” and should keep for 1 week if refrigerated.19
Deviled variation: Add “a little mustard,” some red pepper, or “some grated horseradish” to make the filling “sharper,” if desired.20
“Fortune” Sandwiches: Simple sandwiches, such as brown bread and butter ones, could be made to tell fortunes in different ways, either by cutting them into different shapes to stand for different outcomes (for example, a ring-shaped sandwich might stand for the next person to wed, just as finding an actual ring in a Fortune Cake would stand for the same), or by wrapping them in papers with fortunes written on them, such as “health, wealth, happiness, good luck, wisdom,” or “long life.”21
~ SWEET TREATS ~
A multitude of sweet items adorned past Halloween tables, from apples to sweet chestnuts to candy, popcorn balls, cake, pumpkin pies, doughnuts and cookies. It would be impossible to list all the recipes I’ve found for all those here, but here are a few of the more interesting ones.
POPCORN BALLS (1915):
Popcorn balls were a common offering at Halloween, particularly at children’s parties. The recipe for these balls comes from a 1915 volume of American Cookery:
“BLACK CAP” APPLES:
Eddington recommended this dessert, which is essentially a baked “sweet” apple that’s been deliberately browned on the top, as “an eminently appropriate child’s dish.”222 Interestingly, while she wrote an entire article on how to organize a children’s party with this apple at the center, she never actually explains HOW to make them, though she says that recipe is quite old and ultimately English in origin, while also popular in New England.23 I dug through a number of vintage cookbooks and couldn’t find a recipe, but The Guardian has one on its website that could be modified in vintage ways.
Jane Eddington, for example, suggests that the baked apples should be served on a stick in order to appeal to children. In one article, she suggests adding “marshmallow decorations” to the apple.24 In another, she suggests inserting “a stick of red clove candy” while the apple is still hot, so it will melt and “flavor” the dessert, and then top it all with whipped cream, in an attempt to remind a child of a caramel apple.25 Either way, they sound pretty good.
HALLOWEEN CAKES (1915):
These little nut cakes seem fairly easy to make and are also very festive, given the small almond-paste pumpkins and the variety of different food coloring used:
COCKTAILS AND PUNCHES:
Naturally, I just had to end this post with some drink recipes! 😀 Only one of them is actually a real drink, sadly, but both of them are pretty interesting—and one of them involves lighting stuff on FIRE! 😀 😀 😀
WITCHES’ BREW COCKTAIL (1914):
Sadly, this isn’t something you can actually drink, but it still sounds pretty cool, especially if you’re going for an eerie party effect and you like fire. Check this out:
“Cut the skin of the mandarin oranges around the middle, turn up the upper half, forming a cup, loosen skin from lower half without removing fruit. Fill cups with brandy and alcohol and turn out all the lights, have room dark, and set fire to the contents of the cup just before guests enter dining room. The one whose cup out-burns the others will have a year of good luck.”26
CIDER PUNCH (1926):
This odd recipe comes from an ad for A&P, which was promoting coffee as part of one’s Halloween celebrations. As a result, they offered this bizarre cider recipe, which involves…hot coffee! I can’t decide if it’d taste good or not. What do you think?
I wish I had some alcoholic drinks to offer you all for your vintage party, but none of the archives I dug through mentioned any of them—even the pre-Prohibition ones! 😦
I figured there’d at least be a punch recipe, but there was nothing. So, if you guys have any favorite Halloween cocktails to recommend, I’d love to hear them! 🙂
4. Farrar, Addie. “Hints for Halloween Frolics; Informality the Chief Mark.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 23, 1910. https://search.proquest.com/docview/173504792?accountid=3688.
10. Farrar, Addie. “Hints for Halloween Frolics; Informality the Chief Mark.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 23, 1910. https://search.proquest.com/docview/173504792?accountid=3688.