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How Halloween has changed in the past 100 years

The Lansing Journal has partnered with to provide in-depth features that may be of interest to our readers.
By Brit McGinnis
Halloween has changed drastically since its Druidic origins in Ireland, the original home of the holiday. How people celebrate Halloween has shifted according to technology, the size of cities, and attitudes about celebrating a holiday as a community.

Stacker compiled a list of ways that Halloween has changed over the last 100 years. Included are events, inventions, and trends that changed the ways that Halloween was celebrated over time. Many of these traditions were phased out over time, but every bit of Halloween’s history has left an impression we can see traces of today.

Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Celebrations close to the Earth

Halloween gained popularity in the United States in the 1840s by way of a massive Irish immigration to escape the Irish Potato Famine. The Pagan roots of the celebration may be what led to it being popular with farm communities and people looking to connect with the land as the seasons turned. Natural elements often showed up in costumes of this time.

Michael Ciranni, Shutterstock

Pranks leading the way

In past generations, Halloween was integrated closely with mischief — namely, pranks. Throwing cabbages and stealing garden gates were among the most popular shenanigans. Nowadays, well-known pranks like egging houses or hanging toilet paper from tree branches can result in hefty fines.

Rise in Halloween parties

As Halloween gained popularity stateside, unique methods of celebration began cropping up. Parties by the 1930s were standard fare in Halloween festivities and by the 1950s, Halloween parties were mostly held at homes instead of in downtown centers: a byproduct of the baby boom at the time and the holiday being increasingly focused on children.

Transition from homemade to store-bought treats

If you were trick-or-treating in the 1940s or before, you would likely receive a popcorn ball, nuts, fruit, or money. Manufactured (and pre-wrapped) candy didn’t fully take off in the United States until the 1970s. Why? Parents were worried about the potential tampering of handmade treats.

Decline in fortune-telling

Halloween’s origins run deep in superstition, with fortune-telling starting traditions like bobbing for apples. Oftentimes, predicting the future included rituals to reveal the name of a person’s future spouse. Today, you’re more likely to find your fortune in a loaf of Barm Brack (traditional Irish Halloween bread) than a game at a Halloween party.

The introduction of Halloween’s favorite pumpkin

Irish immigrants who introduced Halloween to America chose to carve pumpkins instead of their traditional turnips, echoing the legend of a cursed man who navigated his way with a light in a turnip. It wasn’t until the 1960s that America would see the Howden pumpkin, a pumpkin bred especially for Halloween carving. Its shallow flesh and sturdy stem make it perfect for carving — but not ideal for eating.

Secularization of Halloween

Halloween was originally a religious holiday for Druids, and is still celebrated as such by Wiccans. The surrounding days were also claimed as Catholic holidays (“All Hallows Eve”) centered on honoring the dead. But pushes in America to take away “evil” elements of Halloween made the holiday more about candy than evil spirits.

The rise of Halloween music

1962 was the year of “The Monster Mash,” a novelty song about the spontaneous party in a mad scientist’s lab. The resurgence in Halloween parties vaulted the popularity of songs like “Haunted House” and the oft-covered “I Put a Spell on You.”

Increased Halloween spending

The days of paper and crepe costumes and homemade treats are largely behind us. Americans projected to spend more than $10.6 billion on this year’s holiday, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey.

Joe Clark/Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Rise of manufactured costumes

Until the 1920s, most Halloween costumes were handmade by the costume wearer or their family. This all changed in the 1920s with the advent of manufactured costumes from companies like Ben Cooper, Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company, and H. Halpern Company. Ben Cooper, in particular, gained Halloween popularity through the production of officially licensed costumes of popular characters.

Malikhpur, Wikimedia Commons

The decline of ‘soul cakes’

The signature offerings for Halloween before candy were homemade soul cakes. They were tied closely to the Catholic roots of Halloween, and were symbolically given in exchange for prayers. These days, soul cakes are few and far between — although they’re still baked on Halloween in certain parts of Europe.

Increased trick-or-treating safety concerns

In 1982, a rash of poisoning deaths were tied to Tylenol pill bottles suspected of post-manufacturing tampering. The case was never solved, which inspired a wave of fear around trick-or-treating to the point where some towns in American banned it completely. Parents since have worried about razor blades, cyanide, and cannabis in Halloween candy — though most incidents of tampered candy are reported to be hoaxes.

The rise of trunk-or-treating

Emerging in the 1990s, trunk-or-treat events emerged as a safer alternative to trick-or-treating. Children gather candy from the opened trunks of cars parked together in a designated parking lot. The practice can inspire creative car decorations and has been nicknamed “Halloween tailgating.”

The rise of haunted houses

The first haunted houses open to the public opened in 1915, but their Halloween heyday arrived during the Great Depression. People built primitive haunted houses that wound through basements and spooked local children. They were a great attraction for local children—and a great alternative to destructive pranks.

Sherman/Three Lions, Getty Images

Trick-or-treating stops—and is revived

Thanks to sugar rationing in America, Halloween candy all but disappeared during World War II. Communities celebrated the holiday how they could. After the war, cartoons like “Peanuts” reintroduced the idea of trick-or-treating to American children.


The rise of Halloween-themed TV specials

When “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” debuted in 1966, the broadcasters probably had no idea they were starting a trend. The tradition has continued with annual airings of “Hocus Pocus” and “Halloweentown” by television networks. “The Simpsons” made a name for itself with the annual Treehouse of Horror Halloween specials.

Adult costumes

Dressing up as a salacious version of a cat, a ketchup bottle, or even Mr. Rogers feels like a very modern shift. The tradition actually began in the 1970s with the LGBTQ+ community in New York City. Greenwich Village’s annual Halloween Parade was the birthplace of the tradition, where it then went on to be absorbed by the general Halloween culture.

High participation in candy distribution

People may remember houses in their neighborhoods growing up that didn’t celebrate Halloween, opting to shut off outside lights to signal that treats would be found elsewhere. But those houses have become rarer with time. In 2020, the National Retail Federation projects that 62% of American consumers plan to hand out candy.

Resurgence of homemade costumes

Homemade costumes have seen a recent resurgence in popularity, likely thanks to the growth of Pinterest, Ravelry, and niche communities centered around crafting. Social media and popular parenting blogs may also be a contributing factor.

mark reinstein, Shutterstock

Increased awareness of Dia de Los Muertos

Perhaps thanks to a growing Hispanic population in the United States (and films like “Coco” and “The Book of Life”), there’s been a rising awareness of the Mexican holiday of Dia de Los Muertos. Taking place on November 1 and 2 of every year, this festival honoring deceased loved ones is often celebrated in tandem with Halloween.

Robin Berry, USMC

Rise of superhero costumes

The National Retail Foundation reported in 2019 that for the first time in 16 years, superheroes beat out princesses for the most desired children’s Halloween costume. This year, the Foundation projects the most popular costume to be Spider-Man — the runner-up is a princess, and in third place is a witch.


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