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A timeline of Halloween history

  • 1750s–1850s: Ghosts in burial shrouds form today’s bed-sheet ghosts

    Between roughly the 1750s and 1850s, artists began depicting ghosts as they appeared in their burial shrouds. As Natalie Shure wrote for The Daily Beast, this was a shift away from previous artistic or literary ghosts, such as Hamlet’s father or the ones who visited Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” The white burial shrouds became associated with ghosts—one of the reasons why today’s phantoms wear bedsheets, according to some theories.

  • 1850s: Irish Potato Famine spikes popularity of Halloween

    In the 1850s, the Irish potato famine prompted immigrants to flood into the United States. In addition to turnip-carving (soon to be pumpkin-carving), they brought many of the original Celtic Samhain traditions with them. “The advent of Ireland's devastating potato famine brought millions of Halloween-loving Irish immigrants over from across the Atlantic,” Jack Beresford wrote for The Irish Post. “Americans soon began embracing the traditions of Halloween, latching on to the tricks and treats as a means of letting off steam one night a year.”

    [Pictured: "Snap-Apple Night" painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833.]

  • 1874: Camille Saint-Saëns writes 'Danse Macabre'

    In 1874, French composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a tone poem called “Danse Macabre” that takes place on Halloween. The ghoulish music, which tells the story of the Grim Reaper waking at midnight to host a Halloween dance with skeletons, has been called the “purest Halloween music ever written.” The classical masterpiece marks one of the first pieces of music written for the holiday that persists today.

    [Pictured: A mid-18th century German broadside (type of print) of the "Danse Macabre."]

  • 1900–1920s: Halloween popularity drives mass-produced costumes

    As the holiday continued to grow, so did the costume industry. Between the turn of the century and the 1920s, the first signs of Halloween as a commercial holiday began popping up as costumes became mass-produced. During this time, the Dennison Paper Co. created a large number of simple paper costumes. "Everybody looked the same, those were aprons with cats or little witches printed on them, or hats or paper masks,” Halloween expert Lesley Bannatyne told Insider. “They were meant to be worn once and thrown away, like crepe paper. That's the first time Halloween got a standard color scheme—yellow, black, orange, purple—with paper products.”

     

  • 1911: First documented trick-or-treating in North America

    Trick-or-treating had been occurring in some form or another for centuries but it hit North America in the early part of the 20th century. According to Daven Hiskey of the website Today I Found Out, the first documented case was in 1911. There are many theories about its origins—some say it’s linked to Celts leaving food out for ghosts during Samhain. Others say it comes from the Scottish practice of “guising” or “souling,” where kids dressed as ghosts and were given gifts to help keep the spirits away.

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  • 1920s–1930s: Parades become incorporated into celebrations

    Although it still wasn’t mass marketed, Halloween had become fairly widespread throughout the United States by the 1920s and 1930s. Around this time, communities began organizing parades and large, community-wide events. It was also around this time that vandalism started occurring during celebrations, too, and the idea of mischief began to be associated with the holiday.

    [Pictured: Anaheim Halloween Parade 1946.]

  • 1939–1947: World War II temporarily halts Halloween

    During World War II, Halloween took a hiatus for a few years. With soldiers dying overseas, people weren’t in the mood for macabre celebrations and when the sugar rations started, it stopped almost completely for several years. However, when the war ended and the rationing was over, Halloween returned in spades. According to Daven Hiskey of the website Today I Found Out, “After the WWII sugar rations were lifted, Halloween’s popularity saw a huge spike and within five years trick-or-treating was a near-ubiquitous practice throughout North America.”

    [Pictured: American Red Cross workers and servicemen hollow out pumpkins in preparation for Halloween Dance at Cheltenham Town Hall in 1944.]

  • 1950s: TV integrated pop culture into Halloween

    In the 1950s, as broadcast TV began soaring in popularity, Halloween became widely marketed and its images became more homogenized. “Popular culture went from radio to television in the '50s, and all of a sudden everybody is on the same page,” Halloween expert Lesley Bannatyne explained to Insider. “You couldn't have standard Halloween costumes that everybody knew about until we had a common culture." Common costumes included figures like Little Orphan Annie, Peter Pan, Donald Duck, and Snow White.

  • 1962: Bobby “Boris” Pickett releases the 'Monster Mash'

    In 1962, a singer named Bobby "Boris" Pickett released a Halloween-themed novelty song called "Monster Mash." The unexpected hit was hugely popular and on Oct. 30 that year, the album topped the charts as the #1 record in the country, selling 1 million copies. Today, it remains one of the most popular Halloween songs in history.

  • 1950–1970s: Candy becomes the treat of choice

    Before the 1950s, kids were trick-or-treating regularly but it wasn’t always candy that went into their goodie bags. According to Mental Floss, things like toys, money, and fruit also were common treats. However, around this time candy manufacturers recognized the opportunity and began marketing tiny-sized candy bars specifically for Halloween. In the 1970s, fear over poisoning further cemented the role of wrapped candy as the treat of choice.

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