Friday, September 4, 2009

Why Halloween?

I've already mentioned in previous posts what a big deal Halloween has become at Clermont. A few of us around here have even begun to joke that our Halloween decorations have begun to give Christmas a run for its money. In fact, I just put in my annual order for streamers, balloons, and candy. Scissors have already begun snipping at the corners of paper bats, owls, mice, and cats. Costume purchases were begun last month (the new 1885 gown is simply stunning--and yes, those polka dots are indeed historic), and actors to go into those costumes will soon begin dusting off their accents and memorizing lines.


So why Halloween? What would bring the venerated home of a Founding Father to celebrate with crepe paper and balloons? It's all because of the 1920s, when Janet and Honoria were little.

As a day of recognition of the dead and all things mystical All Hallow's Eve, Hallowe'en, or Halloween had been around in the public mind for a century or two at least, depending on how liberal you are will to be with your interpretation of the holiday. Early 19th century literature began to celebrate it as an exotic Irish tradition, and ghost stories proliferated in connection with it (lost love was a particularly beloved theme). Pranks played by young men increased in popularity. Later on in the century, the holiday began to develop into a kind of fortune-telling day for young girls, some of whom even celebrated with themed parties. As the 1900s dawned, colorful postcards depicting Halloween themes were purchased and mailed to friends all over the US.

It was not until the 1920s when Halloween as we know got into full swing with parties, costumes, ghosts, witches, pirates, and gypsies (trick-or -treating had to wait until the 1930s though). Elaborate parties for both children and adults became popular. Community parties, often hosted at the town hall or fire hall, also became popular--in part to discourage any more pranks from young boys. These community parties were popular for decades to come. I can still remember the volunteer fire department in my little Maine town holding a costume contest and passing out cupcakes and candy apples every year during my own childhood in the 1980s.
Although we do not have any evidence of Halloween parties being thrown at Clermont, we do have a few pictures that indicate that the Livingstons recognized the holiday in some way. Both show Janet and Honoria showing off freshly-carved Jack o' lanterns. One is from the mid 1910s, the other is from mid 1920s, when they were in Italy. Given than Alice enjoyed entertaining and the girls enjoyed playing dress-up, we are willing to extrapolate a little and show the mansion decorated in historic fashion for Halloween.
It was a friend of mine at Schenectady County Historical Society who turned me on to this colorful era in Halloween history. She held an annual Halloween party for children and had been studying the large body of material culture that had come out of it. I had always thought that the giant Halloween aisle at Target was a new phonomenon. However, I was soon hooked on the same eBay auctions and collectors websites, hunting for new images, and I have been vigorously researching it ever since. I've amassed quite a bit of information, and with the first bite of fall in the air here in New York, I think that I will make the next few blog entries into Halloween ones.
Besides, I feel like this uncommon interest in Halloween at our museum needs a little bit of explaining.

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