Archives For October 2017

The History of Halloween

Although people around the world view Halloween as a thoroughly American holiday, it has a far more complicated story than that. In fact, Halloween is a mash-up of ancient Celtic paganism, early Roman Catholicism, nineteenth-century American immigration, modern suburbanism and commercialism, and much, much more.

It all started about two thousand years ago, when the ancient Celts made sacrifices around sacred bonfires in celebration of the harvest’s end. Think of this as the moment the earth makes its transition from abundant autumnal life to silent wintry death, and—perhaps—a moment when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and dead are blurred.

When the Roman Empire sprawled into Celtic lands in 43 AD and remained there for the next four hundred years, it mingled culturally with existing pagan rites. After the Roman Empire took on Christianity as its official religion in 313 AD, rather than continue the Celts’ tradition of honoring ancestral spirits, the Church focused instead on honoring religious martyrs. Sometime in the 8th century, the pope named November 1 “All Saints’ Day,” the Middle English term for which was “All-hallowmas.” The night before, October 31, became known as All-hallows Eve—today’s Halloween.

A few particulars of the Celtic and Catholic celebrations stand out as familiar to us today. The Celts left out food and wine as offerings for the dead in order to appease them and prevent them from entering their homes—think of it as the earliest form of trick-or-treating, except instead of little children in colorful costumes arriving at the door, it would be a spirit with malicious intent. This practice of food offerings was replaced later in the Christianized version of the holiday by “soul cakes,” food given to the poor rather than to the dead. “Going a-souling” became a child-friendly activity within a community where beggars would go from door to door to receive food or alms.

Dressing up has early roots as well. Fearful they would encounter evil spirits on this unusual night, people wore masks to conceal their faces and stay safely unrecognized. Also, the “trick” in trick-or-treat owes its presence to a centuries-old history of pranks and jokes—perhaps a reference to the kinds of acts people feared from spirits on their one, restless night back among the living. These Halloween pranksters also wore masks to conceal their identities—except this time they would have been more concerned with being recognized by the living. And finally, the harvest has always contributed greatly to the All-hallows Eve atmosphere, with games, parties, and superstitions involving autumn produce such as apples, turnips, and nuts.

Student Halloween party at the University of Southern California, ca. 1890. USC History Collection.

Student Halloween party at the University of Southern California, ca. 1890. USC History Collection.

A Halloween dinner in Vermont, ca. 1900. The Poultney Historical Society.

A Halloween dinner in Vermont, ca. 1900. The Poultney Historical Society.

 

Halloween in America

So how did these traditions migrate from the British Isles to America? An intense period of immigration in the mid-nineteenth century (a period that gave Chicago—and other major cities—its historic Irish, Italian, German, and Swedish neighborhoods) brought Old World traditions to a new country. Millions of Irish in particular, fleeing the potato famine of 1846, had inherited the blended Celtic-Roman tradition of celebrating the dead, and helped make Halloween an American tradition by the end of the nineteenth century, during the period known as the Gilded Age. House parties and celebrations in Irish- or Scottish-American homes often included retellings of legends from the old country or a reading of Robert Burns’s poem ”Halloween.” They influenced their neighbors to join the fun of dressing up and going door-to-door asking for food, treats, and money. And of course, pranks abounded as well, mainly harmless ones such as taking a neighbor’s gate off its hinges. 

People in the Gilded Age were also fascinated with death. Group séances, spiritualist mediums, and sentimental memento mori were all wildly popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and other, more frightening tales of the era reveled in the possibility that the dead may return to earth and speak to the living. This existing trend in the cultural imagination may have made people more receptive to Halloween taking root in American life.

 

Howard Chandler Christy, Halloween, 1915.

Howard Chandler Christy, Halloween, 1915.

1930s newspaper headline in The Oregonian, in which columnist Marian Miller advocating for a safer Halloween holiday. To read the full article, click here.

1930s newspaper headline in The Oregonian, in which columnist Marian Miller advocating for a safer Halloween holiday. To read the full article, click here.

The Gilded Age was, if anything, an age of industry in America. The rise of factories, railroad networks, mining operations, and commercial farming defined an era of unprecedented economic prosperity. Between innovative industrial processes in factories and extra spending money at home, the commercial delights of Halloween were soon as much a staple as the old traditions. The first producer of candy corn, a sugary nod to autumnal harvest, was the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia in the 1880s. Dennison Manufacturing Company published its first catalog for Halloween decorations and stationary, including tips for holiday entertaining, in 1909.

After the turn of the century, the Gilded Age faded into the Progressive Era. In the same spirited mood of reform that would address public issues and fears such as sanitation, poverty, and alcohol consumption, some Americans agitated for change. They wanted to steer the focus of the Halloween holiday away from the dark, superstitious—and, many felt, sacrilegious—spirits and witches of its Celtic roots. They also feared the increasing intensity of pranks and tricks, which could take on the destructive quality of vandalism, especially where other tensions were present. (A late example comes from 1933, when at the height of the Great Depression young men overturned cars, sawed down telephone poles, and taunted the police.) Newspapers urged people to eliminate the grotesque elements of the holiday in favor of fun games that wouldn’t frighten. Accordingly, traditions like parades and parties increasingly focused on children. In the boom that followed World War II, the mass production of candy and costumes added to the storebought goodies that had begun in the Gilded Age. And so, slowly, Halloween evolved into the not-so-spooky, family-friendly, neighborhood holiday it is today.

 

Resources
History.com, “History of Halloween” http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween
NPR.org, “Halloween for Adults: A Scary Story” http://www.npr.org/sections/theprotojournalist/2014/10/29/359547119/halloween-for-adults-a-scary-history
HistoricUK.com, “Halloween.” http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Halloween/
Edwardian Promenade, “Halloween in the Gilded Age.” http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/amusements/halloween-in-the-gilded-age/ 

The Belle Époque posters adorning the galleries of the Driehaus Museum right now shouldn’t, by all rights, exist. They are more than a century old, printed on flimsy paper, with inexpensive inks. Some were once even displayed outside, where the wind, rain, and sun of Paris in its various seasons beat down on them.

The fact that we can enjoy exhibitions like L’Affichomania today, in the 21st century, is thanks to the first devoted collectors who preserved the posters. These adorers of the color lithographic poster, which transformed the formerly drab French capital into a bright, colorful, open-air museum in the last half of the 19th century, were known as affichomaniaques—literally “poster maniacs.”

These collectors gave the color poster—first and foremost an advertising medium—a legitimate place in the realm of high art, upending time-honored French traditions and institutions that traditionally defined what high art could be. The popularity of poster collecting rose in the 1880s, and peaked with wild enthusiasm by 1891, when the term affichomanie, or “poster mania,” entered the parlance. The Parisian art world, epitomized by the exclusive annual Salon, had been a conservative bastion of proud ideals defining what art was, who could make it, and who it was for. Suddenly, however, art exploded all over the streets, as available to be seen and enjoyed by the working class as to the upper classes. It was a revolution.

Jean Béraud, Parisian Street Scene, ca. 1885. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Jean Béraud, Parisian Street Scene, ca. 1885. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Émile Mermet, La publicité dans las rues de Paris en 1880 (Advertising in the Streets of Paris in 1880). Fold-out lithographic illustration in La Publicité en France, Guide Manuel, 1880. New York State Public Library, Albany.

Émile Mermet, La publicité dans las rues de Paris en 1880 (Advertising in the Streets of Paris in 1880). Fold-out lithographic illustration in La Publicité en France, Guide Manuel, 1880. New York State Public Library, Albany.

In addition to redefining what could be classified as art, the poster collectors’ enthusiasm also had a profound influence on poster-making itself. Beginning with French lithographer Jules Chéret and his hand-drawn letters, the text had always been an essential and fascinating part of the poster’s design and advertising purpose. But soon, some artists began to produce limited-edition prints “without letters,” not for the street but for affichomaniaques to display in their private collections. Dealers like Edmond Sagot, Édouard Kleinmann, and Victor Prouté stocked their galleries with these special, rare posters, printed without letters and on expensive papers, especially to provide to a wealthier collecting set who didn’t want their images so closely associated with the consumer delights they promised.

However, the infinitely reproducible medium of lithography also allowed the galleries to provide prints of the original posters for just a few francs, so someone could have a real work of art for the same price as one would pay to go to a restaurant or cabaret for an evening. For a similar fee per publication, subscribers to new poster journals, such as Les Maîtres de l’affiche, La Plume, La Revue indépendante, and Le Courrier français, received small reproductions that were easy to display at home.

If you didn’t possess even these financial means, however, there were plenty of posters out on the street to be had. Some bribed the billposters so they could put get their hands on the newest prints before they were glued onto billboards, kiosks, shop windows, and Morris columns. Many more risked being caught and fined by police and surreptitiously peeled posters off the columns at night for free.

The affichomaniaques therefore came from all corners of society. Another aspect of the Belle Époque’s poster revolution is that the first time, you didn’t have to be wealthy to have your own art collection. “The gold frame is for the time forgotten, and all have their eyes on the lithographer’s stone,” wrote Londoner Charles Hiatt in 1895.

Jan Toorop, De prentenliefhebber (The Print Collector) (Dr. Aegidus Timmerman), 1900. Oil on canvas. The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Jan Toorop, De prentenliefhebber (The Print Collector) (Dr. Aegidus Timmerman), 1900. Oil on canvas. The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Jules Chéret, Ernest Maindron, cover illustration, Les Hommes d’Aujourd’hui 6, no. 299 [1887]. From the collection of Ruth E. Iskin, image from her book The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s.

Jules Chéret, Ernest Maindron, cover illustration, Les Hommes d’Aujourd’hui 6, no. 299 [1887]. From the collection of Ruth E. Iskin, image from her book The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s.

What was the appeal? Certainly one reason for this fierce popular interest is that the new poster took the somewhat mundane elements of a Parisians’ daily urban life—applying face powder, drinking an aperitif, using new technology like the Théâtrophone, and enjoying a bawdy dance at the Moulin Rouge—and elevated them to delightful, even glamorous, activities immortalized in a colorful work of art. This is something consumer advertising has honed to perfection today, but in the late 1800s, this was the first time one saw one’s own life take on a new shine through fantasy images of, say, the beautiful Sarah Bernhardt of Alphonse Mucha’s posters or one of Jules Chéret’s cherettes.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1899. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1899. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901).  Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

"Job," Alphonse Mucha, 1896.

Alphonse Mucha, Job, 1896.

Théâtrophone, 1890.

Jules Chéret, Théâtrophone, 1890.

Though many embraced the astounding prevalence of these bright and colorful advertising images, others balked at what they viewed as a gaudy and unavoidable display. “This is what distinguishes the poster,” wrote French author Maurice Talmeyr in 1896, “that it does not propose its ideas more or less persuasively, but it imposes itself on me. I read a book if I want to do so; I go to see a painting if I feel like it; I do not buy my newspaper despite myself. But the poster? I see it, even if I do not want to see it. … I am obliged to breathe it and to have its force enter my blood!”

Pierre Bonnard, L’Estampe et l’Affiche, 1897. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In this poster, which was commissioned from Bonnard by publisher André Mellerio to advertise the publication by the same name, the elderly woman personifies the older, traditional black-and-white poster peering suspiciously at the wild-haired bohemian youth representing the new color poster.

Pierre Bonnard, L’Estampe et l’Affiche, 1897. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In this poster, which was commissioned from Bonnard by publisher André Mellerio to advertise the publication by the same name, the elderly woman personifies the older, traditional black-and-white poster peering suspiciously at the wild-haired bohemian youth representing the new color poster.

Whether one loved or hated them, however, the sheer power of these posters and the devoted passion of the collectors behind them was certainly not debated. Come and enjoy the exhibition L’Affichomania, a testament to the “poster maniacs” who preserved the ephemera of Paris’s golden age, before it closes on January 7.

 

Resources
The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s by Ruth E. Iskin. Dartmouth College Press, 2014.
Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries by Mary Weaver Chapin. Milwaukee Art Museum / Delmonico Books, 2012.