Halloween in the 1950s–East End, Part 1

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I was born in 1954, so my earliest Halloween memories come from that decade. We lived upstairs of Grandma and Grandpa in a small two-family house in the East End section of Cincinnati. The outside stairs that led to the door of our flat were too rickety to be climbed, so beggars (as they were often called then) would get their treats from the entire household at Grandma’s door.

Since there weren’t snack-size candy bars in economical bags, most treats were suckers, candy corn, apples, hard candy, and candy cigarettes in small cardboard boxes. In our neighborhood, few probably could have afforded to give full-size chocolate bars at 5 cents apiece.

Grandma didn’t settle for tossing handfuls of loose candy corn into beggars’ paper sacks. She made up her own little treat packages. These consisted of orange Halloween napkins; she deposited loose candy in the middle of an unfolded napkin, then twisted the napkin tight around the candy. (I don’t remember her using any kind of fasteners.) I remember the huge orange mound of treat packages on a tray in the middle of the dining room table—which was in their family room/bedroom/dining room (Grandma and Grandpa slept on a sofa bed, with the television so close Grandpa could have put his foot through the screen).

Sometimes I’m not sure how many of my memories are pure and how many are reinforced by images from our home movies. When I have a memory of something tactile, I trust it. Grandma had one of those German paper mache jack-o-lanterns that go for big bucks in the antique malls now. The paper insert with the eyes and mouth was long gone, but I remember running my finger over the strange features of the jack-o-lantern with grin-ridges on its cheeks, and exploring the rough, unfinished inner walls.

The fact that Grandma had so many “old” Halloween decorations is probably why I love vintage decorations so much. I had a love/hate relationship with the paper mache jack-o-lantern: To my mind (and taste shaped by contemporary styles), a true jack-o-lantern had to have triangular eyes and nose and blocked teeth. That’s how my plastic jack-o-lantern looked (now also considered “vintage”).  I didn’t appreciate the paper mache jack-o-lanterns until I was an adult, but by that time Grandma’s piece had disappeared.

Grandma also had several cardboard decorations that had seen better days.  There was a witch with honeycombed crepe paper limbs, and a jointed black cat with raised claw and arched back. Realistic cardboard skeletons, only about 12 inches tall, hung in the front windows. I think she had others, too (such as the witch and cat in the photo above), but mentally I started claiming all vintage cardboard decorations as hers, so I’m never certain of her actual inventory. Examples turn up on eBay regularly at prices that would have astonished Grandma.

Through the 1960s, the nights leading up to Halloween had their own names (at least in Cincinnati). There was a penny night and a damage night. Penny night was what the name suggests—beggars would come knocking for pennies, not expecting anything more. And on damage night, pumpkins were stolen and vandalized, windows were soaped, and sometimes property got more sinister treatment. I remember looking through Grandma’s front windows at Eastern Avenue through the white swirls and curly-Qs of Ivory Soap streaks.

Speaking of vintage Halloween decorations, I made the garland in these photos using old cloth half masks I found in an antique mall and scans of authentic old-time Halloween images. I believe Grandma may have had the flying witch (which appeared against a pumpkin-orange moon) and the cat in the jaunty hat as cardboard cutouts hanging around her dining room.

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