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A Brief History of Halloween in Pennsylvania

© 2016 - All Rights Reserved


W hat we today regard as stereotypical Halloween customs - trick-or-treating, carved pumpkins, store shelves brimming with costumes in July - are fairly recent developments. Pennsylvanians did not commonly acknowledge Halloween until the 1850's, and subsequent decades were marred by mayhem.

Early on, boys celebrated All Hallow's Eve with destructive tricks such as erecting fences across main streets, removing steps from staircases, pelting window panes with dried corn kernels and slamming heads of cabbage against doors. Indeed, so prevalent was the use of cabbage in Halloween rampages that newspapers took to reminding Pennsylvania farmers to harvest their crops in advance of October 31st.

As young men went to greater extremes to outdo one another's dastardly deeds, reports of injuries and property damage increased. These quickly diminished the patience of adults who regarded the perpetrators as juvenile delinquents in need of course correction. The numbers of lawsuits and arrests rose annually. Punishment escalated rapidly after the death of a Lawrence County boy by the name of Richard McElevy who, while helping his cohorts tip over a privy, fell and drowned in the cesspool behind the outhouse.

In an attempt to regain control, parents and town fathers set out to create a safe environment for Halloween celebrations. In the early 1880's it became acceptable for children to dress in scary masks and bedevil street pedestrians in a far more gentle fashion than did the pranksters before them. Halloween parties were the rage among the wealthy, and superstitions now took center stage in the holiday's festivities. Most children bob for apples, for instance - although few know this originated as a means to determine which girl would marry the most handsome boy in town.

The commercialization of Halloween started when shop owners realized that the word itself served as an effective attention-grabber in newspaper ads. Though nineteenth century merchants were not yet hawking Halloween candy, mention of the holiday reminded men and women of the fast-approaching need for fall clothing and other cold-weather wares.

One of the earliest instances involving pumpkins happened in 1888. Several boys irreverently hoisted an oversized orange gourd atop the Prohibition pole at Dempseytown, Venango County - one prank that undoubtedly more than a few adults enjoyed immensely.

By the late 1890's confectioners were advertising almonds, walnuts, pecans, and peanut taffy as "must haves" for the family's Halloween "Feast of Fun" - but it is not until the 1920's that we find mention of trick-or-treat nights and news of parades.

Perhaps as a means of counterbalancing the fear and loss created by World War II, it was during the 1940's that Halloween - with its playfulness and encouraged overindulgence - finally achieved the universal popularity it enjoys today. 💀


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