Halloween Merrymaking: Celebrating the Holiday’s Past, and a Beautiful Interview with Writer, Diane C. Arkins

 

Halloween Merrymaking, and Interview with writer, Diane C. ArkinsAfter reading Diane C. Arkins’ Halloween Merrymaking: An Illustrated Celebration of Fun, Food, and Frolics from Halloweens Past, I absolutely knew I wanted to reach out to her. I wanted to hear about her collections, but also wanted to let her know just how inspired I was, as a fellow super fan of Halloween. For years, Diane’s articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines, such as USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, Country Living, Better Homes & Gardens, Seventeen, and Woman’s Day, to name a few.  Her article, “The Trick or Treat Trails”, just appeared in the Sept/Oct issue of Good Old Days magazine. (Diane’s complete bio can be found at the end of the interview.)

From the preface of Halloween Merrymaking, you’ll find that it’s “a book that will acquaint you with how Halloween was celebrated in America from its early popular incarnations in the 1870s to the early 1930s, the latter decades in particular a period that many consider to be the holiday’s ‘Golden Age.'” If you know me, you know that simply mentioning that time period is enough to get me hooked. But the highlight of the book is the number of vintage photos of celebrations, decorations, postcards, and even complete articles from the earliest magazines to print information on the topic! Much of it is like a how-t0 for throwing a historically accurate “Golden Age” Halloween party. And all of this comes from the author’s amazing collection! 

Fortunately for us, Ms. Arkins agreed to an interview for the blog, and I am incredibly honored to be able to share her beautiful and heartfelt responses. Thank you, Diane!

 

My Interview with Diane C. Arkins

 

What were your favorite costumes from childhood? 

    I grew up in the late 1950s/early 1960s, an era when observances of Halloween were merrily gear toward childrens’ amusements.  When I was young I was always intrigued by the imagery and forms around me, and the place that captured my interest the most was the Ben Franklin 5-and-10-cent store.  The place was always chock-a-block with anything that anyone would want but until I was around 8 or 9 years old, Ben Franklin at Halloween time was THE place I  wanted to be:  there was Brach’s mellowcreme candies shaped like jack-o’lanterns (hereafter referred to as JOLs), cats, grinning moons, tiny owls, maple-flavored little cider jugs and the like that were as fun to play with as they were to eventually eat.  I was captivated by the little wax JOLs and Halloween cat figures made by Gurley Novelty Company – each wax novelty contained a yummy piece of striped orange-and-black hard candy.

    There were irresistible tiny cardboard sets of grease paint that could turn trick-or-treaters to clowns, princesses or pirates and an abundance of eye-catching decorations – like the rolls of black cat and witch face rolls of crepe paper and die-cut wall decorations of owls, cats, witches, haunted houses that I purchased,all by myself with funds from the Brownie troop to decorate the group’s Halloween bash… and, of course, the boxed costumes branded as Collegetown and Ben Cooper.  The store-bought outfits had a cheesy and flimsy feel to them but they were “must-have” attire regardless.  Some years back my EBAY collecting led me to a mint-in-box glitter-adorned Ben Cooper brand BLUE FAIRY identical to the one I wore in the photo in the TRICK-OR-TREAT TRAILS story photo.  Back in 1960 I was devastated when I lost the magic wand on the way back home from Kindergarten show-and-wear but I now enjoy it when the complete boxed set is displayed in one area of my year-round Halloween collection.

    Some of the Halloween “outfits” – so referred-to as they weren’t always costumes per se – that I recall best were the ones devised by my non-sewing mother and memorialized in the brilliant hues of Kodak 35mm slide film.  I thoroughly cherish those pictures!  One early year Mom dressed us up in crisp white blouses and orange crepe skirts adorned with (so classic!) die-cut cardboard Halloween motif decorations – interestingly this style of Halloween attire is in the style of similar vintage early 20th century home-made party attire where abundant home seamstresses crafted simple frocks in orange, black and/or orange-&-black patterned fabric and adorned them with Halloween icons in either fabric or cardboard form.

    Aside from the visual thrills to be found at the dime store I just adored being out amongst the virtual pumpkin patch filled with lit JOLs set up throughout the neighborhood at night for trick-or-treating (for some reason unknown to me we went out on October 30th which they called “Beggar’s Night”… maybe I should GOOGLE the term?).  A thick blanket of crackling dry leaves covering my Mary Janes (shoes) and an intoxicating aroma of burning leaves permeating the air added to the mysterious ambiance.  It is no exaggeration to describe the scene as utterly magical… some special fairyland real-life moments that could overtrump saccharine visions of Disneyland in a snap.  Even as a young child I was especially attracted to the feel and mood of Halloween. 

    Interestingly my research into early 20th century merrymaking has shown me how the boomer-era kids’ birthday parties I attended as a child seem to have been almost exactly mimic the patterns set out by those early magazine mavens such as The Modern Priscilla, The Woman’s Home Companion and the like: a festive overall setting with plenty of decorations; a crepe (or later tissue) paper tablecloth with tiny crepe paper nut cups (de rigueur in 1910 I personally never liked that omnipresent offering of salted peanuts and pillow mints – yuk!) and paper or cardboard hats; a meal with cake; party games with prizes! and parting souvenirs.  Naturally the one Halloween-themed kiddy party I attended back in 1962 – complete with its quintessential feather-tipped blow-out noisemakers –  was my favorite.

 

Your book includes such a wealth of photos and vintage items.  I could  spend all day just looking at every detail of the photos.  Are these from your own collection?  How did you find them?

    I do enjoy my collection of vintage Halloween treasures by handling them and losing myself in their charms when I appreciate them.

    Luckily for those lovers of Halloween memorabilia like myself, writing a book serves as a great excuse to add to and/or splurge on vintage treasures for one’s personal collection.  With the rare exception of a photo or two I shot at the home of a fellow collector, all of the vintage treasures – from paper ephemera to 19th-century magazines – depicted in Hal Merrymaking come from my personal collection. 

    I began collecting illustrated Halloween postcards dating from that items’ “Golden Age” (approx. 1907-1918) during the mid-1980s after I happened upon a few buying leads in magazines for collectors.   (Artistically drawn postcards for any occasion imaginable flooded the mails over the first two decades of the 1900s.  Many of the cards were exquisitely printed in Germany and boasted deeply-embossed details that added to their charms.  The cards remain highly collectible with today’s collectors and I’ve used holdings to illustrate the other books I published with Pelican: Halloween: Romantic Art and Customs of Yesteryear and The Glorious Fourth of July: Old-Fashioned Treats and Treasures From America’s Patriotic Past.

    Before the advent of internet buying and selling I added to my collection of vintage holiday postcards via mail auctions (run through postcard collecting magazines) and browsing for hours at postcard shows (these are still held around the country throughout the year).  In later years I acquired a few vintage Halloween treasures from (again) mail-order purchases (often run in publications like The Antique Trader) and a few well-publicized auctions of collections being disbanding.

   Regrettably the area I live in wasn’t awash with antique stores and I missed out on the likely relative bargains that vintage Halloween fans could happen upon when antiquing in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Once the internet entered the scene, both sellers and potential increasingly flocked to online sites – most popularly EBAY – and soon it became a snap to acquire heart’s desires limited only by one’s pocketbook.  I confess that I DO NOT have a Donald Trump-like bank account by any stretch of the imagination but I have, over many years, been able to build a collection of Halloween and other vintage treasures that I thoroughly enjoy.

 

Knowing what you know about the history of decorating and entertaining for Halloween, what is the holiday like in your own home?

    Like other collectors of vintage Halloween treasures I actually display many items in my home on a year-round basis.  My husband is quite the self-taught wood worker and he has built several wall cabinets and a handsome glass-topped display coffee table for me to display paper items.  I have a good-sized floor cabinet to house larger, more dimensional items and one bedroom wall is filled with framed tear-outs of pages of eye-catching Halloween paper dolls (delightful!) and magazine covers.  To me, vintage Halloween artwork doesn’t get any better than the dust-cover illustration (from the Oct 1931 issue of Holland’s magazine) on Merrymaking.

    Seasonally I usually like to have pumpkins, pumpkins and pumpkins of all sizes, shapes and colors around the house.  The more unusual pumpkins I’ve been traveling to buy since 2001 come in the most intriguing colors:  the deep red-orange of the rouge d’etampes, or “Cinderella” pumpkin; the pale orange Long Island Cheese; the “blue” (pastel gray if you ask me) Jarrahdale; the deep orange-vein patterned on cream of “One Too Much” and so much more.  I usuallyattempt to grow my own “batwing” mini pumpkins (ones with “dripping” deep green accents that mimic bat wings) in my garden but this year’s crop was a flop!

    I also like to use mini pumpkins and/or colorful gourds to craft “pumpkin people,” “gourd gremlins” or  “veggie people” (as they are most popularly known).  My inspiration when I first started making these little charmers was the “pumpkin people” who starred in many of my favorite vintage Halloween postcards (see page 52 of Hal Merrymaking for an example).  So fun!

    Inside I would display more of my cardboard die-cut decorations in windows, on walls, clipped to draperies or perhaps attached to some wire-and-twine faux spider webs I got at KMart.  Although I belong to the group of collectors who consider damage to be acceptable when acquiring vintage pieces (to me they show “character” or the “battle scars” incurred in decorating duty over the decades) you wouldn’t want to do any more damage yourself!  The very old German pieces are really beautifully-crafted of VERY heavy pressed die-cut cardboard that gives them amazing texture and depth… they are truly works of art. The little photo of a German die-cut that appears on page 25 of Merrymaking was an especially large one that measured probably approx. 14″x14″.  Most pieces are far smaller, i.e. a jack-o-‘lantern (or JOL) face that measures around 6″ across.

    Each season I usually send copies or reproductions of vintage Halloween postcards (a companion tear-off postcard book to my first Halloween book is just one source for such cards) or standard Halloween greeting cards… and I often like to make very special little treat bags, or “veggie people,” to give to people who’ve been especially kind to me during the year.  My oversized frosted JOL face cookies are truly scrumptious but the problem is that they are SO GOOD that they all disappear before the mixing dishes make it out of the dishwasher!

 

What kinds of things would we be surprised to find haven’t changed since the Golden Age of Halloween?

    I would venture that is was during the first decade of the 1900s that women’s magazines became to more regularly devoted counseling their readers with regard to home entertaining.  This was a time when a page or two began to be devoted to true soups-to-nuts party planning: invitations, decor (both home-made or more increasingly store-bought), menus and recipes, costuming (applicable back then to more than Halloween attire), party games, favors and party gifts.  I can name some names of women who were the “Martha Stewarts” of their times… indeed they probably invented the genre of party maven!?   

    Nothing has changed in essence that people still want to entertain their family and friends, they want to do it well and they are always looking for some inspiration – whether its cutting-edge new or dependably old stand-by – to guide them.  As always, the differences are in the details.

    One “detail” that remains as true in 2014 as it was back in 1914, for example, is that people like cupcakes.  The problem in putting up the 1906 illustration of cupcakes on Pinterest today might lie with the fact that a lot of folks online now tend to make uninformed, thoughtless snap judgments on things and they would fail to understand or appreciate the history or importance of the old illustration… instead of thinking “wow… that was how thinks used to be” and consequently “that was how WE got from THERE to the-more-improved-NOW,” they would simply dismiss the picture by saying “LOL – it isn’t that picture (stupid)(lame)(name your own insult).”

    Reminder that the merrymaking we enjoy TODAY came from the often rudimentary ideas developed in the past.

 

Your book made me want to pick a year, and plan  a historically accurate Halloween party, using your book as a template!  Have you done this?  Have you heard of people trying this?

    I can’t say that I hosted any Halloween events based upon my books (sadly I am woefully short of people who might attend and/or actually appreciate such efforts) nor have I been aware of anyone who’ve hosted their own vintage-style bashes.  I have, however, imagined how wonderfully such an event must have been for partygoers “back in the day” and have also imagined how an all-stops-pulled-out party could be set up at the handsome old Victorian mansion-turned-special-events-restaurant where we enjoy our Thanksgiving dinners.  The place is spectacular and I usually request a table located in the front turret so things seem both elegant and “just like being at Grandma’s house.”  We’ve been going there for many years now and I CAN imagine PRECISELY how everything could be made up to be absolutely breathtaking! 

 

How would you compare the Halloween entertaining articles from around the turn of the century to the articles I see in line at the grocery store today?

    Well to my mind the vintage periodicals win any comparison on just about every point (and mind you: I hate to bash modern print media in just about any way, shape and form.  I truly mourn the loss of just about anything from The Ladies’ Home Journal and McCalls to the not-quite-daily mail-delivered Christian Science Monitor) but today’s magazines seem to have an edge over vintage ones only when it comes to color illustrations. 

    The early 20th century magazines gave us those fabulous original guidelines for celebrating our holidays with panache.  They educated us, often for the first time, on many of the old customs that led us to understand why we celebrated at all!  And they did it so elegantly.  Compare this 1910 quote from The Housekeeper magazine that appeared in Merrymaking –

            “October, the golden month, when Nature having reaped a wonder harvest of beauty, wastes it like a spendthrift for our joy!  What hostess can fail of success in entertaining this month when there are autumn leaves, flowers, ‘golden glorious,’ and vines flushing with crimson, to bedeck the table?”

– to, well, again anything?

    Today’s magazines are comparatively much smaller than most vintage periodicals.  During Halloween’s “Golden Era,” the many, many more magazines for the lady of the home measured in at a jumbo 14″x17″.  This oversized format allows for far space to be devoted to editorial content… resulting in longer, more detailed information being presented in more beautifully-worded prose.  The paucity of real photographs also allowed to more words to be presented instead.

    For its part Martha Stewart Living, for example, does have an edge over most monthly magazines in the holiday decorating score but it seems that her Halloween focus of late has honed in on dark silhouettes of ravens, decorative (empty) bottles of POISON or WITCH’s POTION, haggly old witches (NOTE: at least 50% of early 20th century “witches” were depicted as beauties on postcards) and the like.  So she does a great job when it comes to inventiveness… she simply represents a different style to what I prefer.         

    For me suggestions for making “mummy hot dogs” out of crescent rolls and red hots pale against vintage inspiration for using hollowed-out squashes to serve condiments.  And this year one highly-regarded magazine presented decorative pumpkins wrapped in rubber bands (huh?) or duct tape images that look to be designed by a 2-year-old.  Clever, eh?  Can’t wait to adorn my pumpkins with rubber bands.  What were they thinking?

    In my book, vintage wins just about every time.

 

Can you talk a little about Dennison’s Bogie Book and what that is?

    Dennison's Bogie Book, Big SeanceThe highly-collectable and much coveted Bogie Books were a series of party-giving guidebooks that were produced by The Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Mass. to promote their Halloween paper goods.  Named “Bogie Book” after the mythical mischievous little goblins that were said to roam on Halloween, the typical approx. 5″x8″ booklet might give directions on how to conduct a party; craft a simple party favor; decorate a witch’s den suitable for fortune-telling; play party games; create a crepe paper costume; or even decorate larger venues for group celebrations. The booklets also featured pictures of Dennison’s delightful party merchandise (paper napkins, beautifully-illustrated panels of printed colored crepe paper, placecards, boxed decorative seals and more).  Illustrations, either real photography or artist’s renditions, appeared in ordinary black-&-white printing but the images were captivating nonetheless. Party planners could purchase the guides either by mail-order or at one of the company’s stand-alone stores in major cities like Chicago.  They were modestly priced at 5 to 10 cents.

    An initial impossible-to-find booklet produced in 1909 was followed by a series of Bogie Books beginning in 1912 and continuing for most years through 1926.  Dennison also produced similar typically 30-to-36-page holiday guidebooks such as The Christmas Book, The Gala (or Party Book) for Feb-July celebrations and a single 1918 Patriotic Book.  A variety of other larger-format Halloween booklets began in 1927 and continued until 1935.  In addition, Dennison produced a wide assortment of other self-promotional how-to booklets primarily centered on making things out of the firm’s luxe line of colorful crepe paper.

    Though reigning as undisputed king of how-to booklets during Halloween’s “Golden Age” the Bogie Books were not the only well-executed pamphlets around.  Other notable illustrated little guides were issued by food firms (like JELL-O and Staley) and competing crepe paper maker American Tissue Mills.  Respected Halloween decoration maker The Beistle Company of Shippensburg, PA issued The Children’s Hallowe’en Party Book (by Miss Polka Dot).  This last item is a slim 12″x7″ volume consisting of an 8-page story (printed in either tissue-weight orange or ordinary white paper) and several pages of tear-out party accouterments like placecards, candle shades, invitations.  This dandy early 20th century booklet can command a pretty penny IF its party pieces pages remain uncut within.

   Intact copies of rarer Bogie Books (those in the 1910s) can bring hundreds of dollars depending condition, condition, condition. 

 

I wish I could go back in time and interview my Great Grandmother and talk to her about her Halloween memories and experiences growing up in that “Golden Age” of Halloween.  She was such a fun woman.  Has any of your research come from interviewing folks who were around in this time period?

    During the time that I began to collect vintage Halloween memorabilia and write about old-fashioned Halloween customs I’ve never been acquainted with any folks who themselves experienced the holiday’s “Golden Era.” I do, however, love to completely immerse myself in old magazine and newspaper accounts of Halloween entertaining.  Entertaining back then must have been so much more exciting than anything in the 21st century.  After all folks today sit at tables filled with people and still ignore those gathered to devote their (overly ample free time) to tiny electronic devices. 

    Back “then” folks reveled in the opportunity to spend their seriously limited free time to interact with people who you might not see again for some time to come.

 

Is there one single vintage item or article that you’ve discovered that stands out as your favorite?

    In many ways it “doesn’t take much to get me enthused.”  I was delighted to acquire for my collection some of the little wax pumpkins (the ones filled a few pieces of orange-&-black candies) that so fascinated me at the five-and-dime store when I was little – for some reason they still so strongly resonate for me with personal happy Halloween memories.

    The other notable item is a small (8″ long) string of decorative ca 1920s/30s embossed German-made Halloween children party-goer scrap pictures (they appear on page 105 of Hal Merrymaking).  Each of the little children stand only 2″ high but their detailing is so superlative that completely embody the spirit of old-fashioned Halloween.  I was delighted beyond compare when a former co-worker (who passed away many years now) gifted me this tiny bit of paper.  I do cherish the pictures so.  Thanks, Jeanie, for your thoughtfulness… you are missed. 

 

What is your favorite iconic Halloween symbol

    A merrily-carved jack-o’-lantern of course!  He’s always up for a good old-fashioned Halloween time.

 

Diane C. Arkins began her career as a freelance writer at the age of nineteen by publishing feature articles in Seventeen, Co-Ed, and Woman’s Day magazines. In 1984, her work began to appear in the Chicago Sun-Times. After earning a BS in journalism from Northern Illinois University, she continued her writing endeavors by publishing magazine and newspaper stories while employed full time at the offices of the Australian Consulate-General in Chicago.

Arkins’ “Home Truths” humor column appeared in the Homelife real estate section of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1988 through 2000. Her work has appeared on the Op-Ed pages of numerous major daily newspapers, including a stint as a regular contributor to USA Today. Arkins has written for Country Living, Victoria, Family Circle, Brides, Country Collectibles, Country Home, Better Homes & Gardens, Woman’s World, Antiques & Collecting Magazine, and a wide variety of other publications.

Arkins has a passion for animals, gardening, and collecting vintage images, early illustrated postcards, and holiday memorabilia.

 

About Patrick Keller

Patrick Keller is an educator, blogger, and the host of the Big Séance Podcast, which is a place for paranerds to have an open discussion on all things paranormal, but specifically topics like ghosts and hauntings, paranormal research, spirit communication, psychics and mediums, and life after death. He’s the founder of the now inactive Missouri Spirit Seekers and has spent a lot of time experimenting with spirit communication tools and techniques, such as EVP. Patrick also has a passion for spending hours at a time in cemeteries and loves cemetery photography. Visit BigSeance.com! View all posts by Patrick Keller

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