Halloween traces its history far into the past. By the early twentieth century the day had become a popular holiday in America. Usually spelled Hallowe’en at the time, a Bellingham Halloween looked very different back then than it does today.
Halloween Tricks Not Treats
“A person’s age is sometimes indicated by the way he feels about Hallowe’en,” quipped the “Wheezes and What Not” column of the Bellingham Herald in 1929. While many enjoyed quiet parties, Halloween was primarily seen as a night of mischief — for young boys. Boys, often in large groups, would cause havoc all night. The “Hallowe’en urchins were at large in the city last night” the Herald wrote in 1906, as the town surveyed the damage the next day.
A large police presence was put together to keep the peace on Halloween night, including deputizing a number of volunteer “special” officers. The downtown business district was easy to patrol, but the sprawling residential areas proved more of a challenge for the overextended cops. “Hoodlums” could easily run off before the police came.
Police could promise to enforce the 8 p.m. curfew for children, but catching the older boys was next to impossible. “Kids,” the local paper wrote that year, “will own the city tonight.” Those arrested were usually let off with a warning after their parents picked them up. Some years, rain brought a welcome damper to the rascals’ celebrations.
Most pranks were fairly harmless. Popular pranks included knocking over wood piles and hen coops, dumping garbage, stealing gates, changing signs, and soaping over windows of businesses and homes. “Now that Hallowe’en is over,” declared a 1929 ad for men’s winter underwear at the Home Store on Bay Street, “we had our usual soap removing exercise.”
Other pranks were more malicious and even dangerous. Janitors had to guard schools from break-ins. False fire alarms sent fire trucks scattering across the city. Streetlights were damaged. In 1909, elderly Abaraham Cohen, a school supply dealer, was stoned out of his business while the Model Grocery’s delivery wagon was backed into the bay. In 1911, 300 heads of cabbage were torn out at Pat Geraghty’s garden, as well as some rare dahlias.
One of the most dangerous stunts was greasing the streetcar line. Workers often patrolled the line, but that was rarely enough. In 1912, the line was greased on the Harris Avenue hill, causing a heavy mainline car crash down the slope. Other miscreants put up street barricades to surprise automobile drivers in the dark. In 1938, 16-year-old Anthony Shinner was critically injured when the car he was riding in hit a barricade of stones and logs.
For those who wanted a calmer Halloween, parties were popular, especially for young people. Clubs, lodges, churches, and friends held Halloween parties. People enjoyed decorating rooms with jack-o’-lanterns, black cats, witches, and bats and playing old-fashioned fortune-telling games. For example, sisters Muriel and Dorothy Young entertained their teenage friends with games and music in 1917 at their home, cutting a fortune cake baked with tokens inside to represent future possibilities.
Groups often held parties and dances, especially masquerades. For example, the Woman’s Relief Corps hosted an “old fashioned” Halloween masquerade party at their hall in 1923 for Civil War veterans, serving pumpkin pie, doughnuts, and cider. The Ladies Auxiliary of the Fire Department held a masquerade in 1926, enjoying a night of cards and fortune telling. In 1919, costumed dancers at Garden Hall enjoyed visiting a fortune telling “witch” in an elaborate fake-woodland cavern.
Schools sometimes organized Halloween parties, as well. In 1925, Whatcom High School’s Girls’ Club’s service committee held a masquerade party at Dorothy Knuppenberg’s house, which included showing a “shadow movie.” The Geneva School PTA made its 1921 Halloween party a fundraiser, selling coffee, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and Scottish mint drinks.
Trick or Treating
Trick-or-treating was introduced in the 1920s but began to truly take off in the late 1930s. While 30 boys and girls were arrested in 1939 for vandalism, trick-or-treat was clearly gaining popularity as a way to keep the mob appeased.
“Have the grub ready Oct. 31st,” warned a scrawled note stuffed into a Meridian Street mailbox a few days before, “or the soapers [will get your windows] — No apples or pears.” “The increasingly popular ‘treat or treat’ dodge,” noted the Bellingham Herald that year, “…has denuded many a cookie larder.” To further help keep kids off the streets, the YMCA also sponsored a party for 210 schoolboys, to keep them busy on the holiday.
After World War II’s rationing and frowning on property destruction, trick-or-treating became the norm. Stores began selling candy and baked treats like cookies and doughnuts to give out to trick-or-treaters. In 1947, Virginia’s Cafe urged patrons to buy their orange-frosted “Halloween doughnuts” to “be prepared for trick or treat.”
Halloween is still a popular holiday today, enjoyed by many people. From trick-or-treating to parties or however you may choose to celebrate, here’s wishing you a Happy Halloween!