Eerie Ephemera: The Golden Age of Halloween Postcards
But why the apostrophe? It reflects the historical evolution of the term, from "All Hallows' Evening" to the shortened "Hallowe'en," with "hallow" harkening back to an antiquated term for saint or holy, adding historical charm to the holiday's name!
Step back in time to the captivating era of the Golden Age of Postcards, spanning from 1905 to 1915. This period marked a remarkable surge in postcard collecting, as millions of these unique treasures were produced, sold, and cherished for their sheer delight. Picture postcards, beyond being a mode of communication, offered a vibrant snapshot of American life, especially during the early 20th century. Crafted for a multitude of occasions, these postcards held a particular fascination for holidays, with Halloween taking center stage. As we explore these century-old postcards, you'll encounter intriguing scenes that evoke the spirit of bygone traditions from the late 1800s and early 1900s, some of which have faded into history. Join us on this journey through the past and discover the captivating stories these vintage postcards have to tell!
Let's start simply with the star gourd of the season: Have you ever wondered about the curious origin of the term "jack-o'-lantern"? While it's shrouded in folklore and legends (a quick search on the tale of Stingy Jack is a must!), the most intriguing explanation leads us to a bit of British history. Back in the 17th century, people would commonly use "Jack" to refer to an unidentified man. For instance, a night watchman was often affectionately called "Jack-of-the-Lantern," which later evolved into "jack-o’-lantern." Over time, this term found its way to the lanterns ingeniously carved from root vegetables, ultimately giving us the name we use today!
While modern Halloween often emphasizes the “treat” in “trick or treat,” postcard art can help us to remember its mischievous historical roots! (Author's note: A vivid portrayal of turn-of-the-century Halloween pranks can be found in one of my favorite movies: Meet Me in St. Louis!). This image is just one among our collection that captures the spirit of Halloween with jack-o'-lanterns peeking through windows, held by little hands, ready to surprise those inside. It's a prevalent motif on Halloween postcards from that era!
Halloween and romance might not seem like a natural pair, but during the Edwardian and Victorian eras, young ladies were fascinated with fortune-telling and predicting their future husbands. Postcards from that era often depict these curious rituals, ranging from burning nuts and examining egg yolks to divination games with ink-filled bowls. One of the most prevalent customs involved holding a candle in front of a mirror in a dimly lit room, sometimes after walking up or down stairs backward, with the belief that their future lover would appear before them.
It's also interesting to note that the urban legend and ritual of Bloody Mary is believed to have evolved from mirror divination rituals like these!
Apples have long symbolized fertility and renewal and played a significant role in various love traditions (including the classic game of bobbing for apples!). In New England, where communal apple peeling was a seasonal activity, young single women had their own apple-related custom: they would skillfully peel an apple in a single, unbroken strand and then playfully toss the peel over their shoulder. The belief was that if the peel landed in the shape of a letter, it would represent the initial of their future husband!
There’s a lot of occult-light activity happening in this postcard!
Delve into early Halloween postcards, and you might find yourself pondering the recurring theme of Halloween cakes. What appears as a typical Halloween party is, in fact, a charming tradition known as the Fortune Cake! Originating from Ireland and Scotland and reminiscent of the Mardi Gras King Cake, this delightful custom involves baking a cake with a concealed token inside. The finder's destiny could range from impending marriage in the coming year to potential union with the cook or even the need for dental work—the token's significance varies with the culture. Some modern Celtic descendants continue a variant of this tradition with Bairín Brac, a rich fruit bread fondly known as the "speckled loaf."
Then there are traditions with unknown roots or meanings, like the curious actions of the little witch below. Her rituals might be linked to Halloween customs lost to time, perhaps inspired by ancient Celtic practices in which objects symbolizing wishes or ailments were cast into fires for healing or fulfillment. Alternatively, was it merely an artistic choice made by the illustrator?
Amidst all these traditions, there are plenty of images that defy logic! These postcards provide a glimpse into the considerable demand placed upon artists like Ellen Clapsaddle, Bernhardt Wall, and Samuel Schmucker during that era. They were tasked with creating a vast array of unique and imaginative designs, resulting in some delightfully bizarre and whimsical postcards year-round, but especially during Halloween. We hope this brief exploration of deltiology (the captivating world of postcard study and collecting) has piqued your interest and kindled a renewed enthusiasm for the timeless tradition of sending postcards!