Friday, September 25, 2009

Paper Pieces

The third installment in my Halloween series...

When I started decorating Clermont for Halloween, it seemed to me that historic party decoration was all about paper. I've already discussed silhouettes in this blog, paper decorations also included Chinese paper lanterns, printed place cards, die-cut decorations (pictured at left from an eBay auction), and copious usage of crepe paper.

Decorative uses of paper go "way back" (for lack of a better term--I haven't found an "earliest date" in my research). In the 18th century white paper chains were popular decorations for weddings. Later in the 19th century, colored paper chains and other paper decorations were among the first things Americans and Englishmen hung on their Christmas trees. That paper began to be more cheaply produced in the 19th century cannot have hurt its use as a decorative favorite.

So it cannot have seemed like a big jump culturally to start decorating for Halloween with paper too.

Chinese or paper lanterns were linked to Halloween as far back as the 1880s, when Halloween parties began to gain popularity. Their light was considered "myseterious" or remiscent of fairies, and thus perfect for a holiday built around mystery and the occult.

Eventually Dennison, a paper company, began annually releasing decorating manuals they called the "Bogie Book." This manual provided detailed instructions for decorating homes and halls with elaborate creations of crepe paper. Many 1920s and 30s examples of this magazine survive today, and they have become quite the hot-ticket item on eBay, but you can also purchase scanned copies for much cheaper if you are more in search of the information than a collectors' item. For those of us looking to recreate an accurate image of historic Halloween, they are an absolutely invaluable source, and the images they provide are relatively easy (if time-consuming) to replicate.

In the "Bogie Books," brightly-colored crepe paper showed up in the not only as pretty streamers, but as costumes! As you can see from the photo at right (taken from Diane Arkins' book Halloween Merrymaking), whole costumes were constructed by mounting brightly-colored crepe paper onto a simple cotton dress, slip, or even pajamas. Personally, this always struck me as ironic for a holiday associated with games that involved a lot of candles. Few disaster stories have been passed down to us however, leading me to believe that somehow people managed to keep their costumes and their candles far enough apart.

By far my favorite pieces of memorabelia from early 20th century Halloweens however are the post cards. First imported to the United States in the first decade of the 20th century, these cards provide a rich source for information, inspiration, and even use in decoration. They depict the scarey, romantic (yes, romantic), mysterious, and nostalgic sides of Halloween. Last year, I scanned and printed some to serve as place cards on the dining room table. The brilliant colors of the original lithography added just the right touch to the dining room table.

So what happened to all these paper decorations? Modern Halloween decorations have moved to favor nostalgic plastic or even metal objects remeniscent of Victorian imagery. Orange and purple string lights, fake spiderwebs, and glitter-covered bones are also current favorites. Nevertheless, paper decorations are seeing a bit of a resurgence.
Home decorator magazines are bringing back some truly vintage-style paper decorations, and some stores are beginning to reproduce the printed products and tissue-paper cut-outs.
I'm relieved to have some of these products available to me as I am cutting and taping my way towards the Legends by Candlelight Spook Tours. Some mass-produced items from the 1920s are hard to reproduce without the technical machinery--that ghost garland is definitely not a do-it-yourself product--and they add that much more authenticity to my decor.
For more vintage imagery and products, check out this little store's blog or try picking historic-appropriate paper objects from big party-suppliers like we do.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Learn How to Dance at Clermont

While the rest of nation is watching Kelly Osbourn spin around the dance floor on "Dancing with the Stars," Clermont is giving out free dance instruction for anyone who's decided its time to try this dancing stuff out for themselves. Salmagundi Consort will be here on October 10th with a caller to direct and explain English Country Dancing to the visiting public (1:00-3:00pm).

These experienced musicians are lifelong students of living history and bring flare and fun to historical inquiry. I had the chance to dance with them in January at a Twelfth Night party. It took me only a couple of songs to pick up the basics, and pretty soon I was having a really good time (that's me down below in the green dress with the goofy look on my face). I was so sorry when the night was over that I knew that I just had to have them perform at Clermont as soon as the opportunity arose.

So what on earth is English Country Dancing? To the untrained eye, it loosely resembles Square dancing or contra dancing, and it was popular during the 18th and very early 19th centuries. Good dancing was especially important to the elite of the 18th century Western world. It enabled a person to show off their physical grace (George Washington was a renowned dancer) and gave men and women an opportunity to get "up close and personal" (think of how important dancing was in just about every Jane Austin book or click here to see a video clip).

But is this something that you can learn in two hours? Yes! If you know your left foot from your right one and can count to four, you can do this, and if you get a little lost, someone will be there to point you in the right direction. And any comfortable clothes are welcome. No funny costumes are required!

Clermont to Clermont, featuring English Country Dancing, chidren's activities, hot food, a symposium, and a "Dog Walk & Talk" on the rehabilitated Riverfront Trail, will take place on Saturday, October 10th from 12pm-4pm. The event is free to all.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Scary Silhouettes

The first installment of my Halloween history series...

A large number of historic seasonal decorations (Halloween or otherwise) we handmade, relatively easy, and inexpensive--making them perfect for anyone trying to make the most out of their budget. Paper decorations were incredibly popular: some were mass-produced, others made at home.

Silhouettes were an element of decor that were often produced at home with black paper, a steady hand, and several hours with a pair of scissors. I found some historic mass-produced ones available on eBay (pictured at right), but it seemed just as easy in this case to make my own. Applications varied, but according to recommendations that I found, LOTS of repetition seemed to be favored, and they could be mixed with other things (streamers, balloons, etc).

When I first started out playing with silhouettes, I though, "Yeah sure. These won't be very interesting." But it turned out I was wrong.

I started out with the the images I found on the internet of historic Halloween cards, using a photocopier to enlarge images of bats, cats, and owls that were in the background. I wanted to use the actual historic images because the eye for style and proportion would be different from what modern expectations were. I particularly liked the craggy angles of this cat. As a rule, jagged or criss-crossed lines are more visually disquieting than round or paralell lines.

Everyone in the office contributed on their lunchbreaks or whenever else they were in the meeting/break room. I would just hand them a template, black construction paper, and a pair of scissors with an earnest and hopeful look on my face (the look goes a long way in getting people to help with odd tasks). Pretty soon we had a large stack.

Now what? Well, instructions in the old books and the new ones all suggested putting them on windows, pinning them to the curtains (the reproductions, not the historic ones of course) and creating patterns of them along walls and doorways.

I was downright amazed at how effective the winking eyes of the owls were against the bright light of the outside. And, on another book insturction, I pinned some to lampshades, where they added atmosphere after dark. Eventually, I just went a little crazy and started attaching them anywhere that they would create a strong contrast. I even began putting them against the tablecloth (another receommendations of the ubiquitous manuals).

My last project was a difficult one, but again was produced by following the instructions in an historic text. "No party is complete without a witch on her broomstick," it said. The book recommended cutting one out of black paper and affixing it to orange or blue tissue paper to symbolize the moon. The crafter was then instructed to take a large piece of cardboard (harder to find than expected in my case), cut a circle out of it, and affix the tissue paper and witch to the back. I had no earlthy idea if this would work, and sketching the witch was enough to try my patience (my drawing skills are poor at best--another reason to use that photocopier next time).

After an hour or so of fussing, it all came together reasonably well. Whew! Too bad my "moon" isn't rounder...

So the outcome: if you too are looking to decorate your home up on a budget this Halloween, I recommend this method to anyone. Altough, it would probably be even better if you have a child who is good with scissors to help since that part is a little time cosuming. All together, I say "go history!" for providing me with a cheap decorating solution!

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.