Charity please! How Halloween went from a chaotic night to a family holiday in Tacoma

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Halloween traces its history far back in time. By the start of the 20th century, the day had become a popular holiday in America. Usually spelled Hallowe’en back then, a Tacoma Halloween was very different than it is today.

Tricks Not Treats Early Halloween in Tacoma

While clubs, churches, and friends held quiet evenings with games, dancing, and food, the holidays were seen primarily as a night of pranks and vandalism in the early 1900s. People, especially the young boys, spent the night terrorizing the neighborhood by stealing doors, changing commercial signs, filling porches with trash, ringing doorbells and soaping windows. “Tomorrow night is Halloween, but don’t tell the young ones,” joked the Tacoma Daily News in 1905. A “healthy Halloween,” a Tacoma Times cartoonist humorously noted in 1909, was only possible if families kept their sons tied up.

tacoma halloween
Halloween was still a hectic time when this postcard was made in the early 20th century.

Unsurprisingly, some of the pranks went overboard, causing panic and financial damage. A few boys threw a mannequin over a power line at 13th Street and Pacific Avenue and scores of adults called authorities to report the death of an electrician. Near Glendale Street in 1903, a streetcar passed a woman standing near a cluster of barrels and rubbish. They then watched her fall onto the live wire behind them. The driver rushed to his aid, only to find it was a dummy. A group of boys hiding behind the barrels burst out laughing.

Halloween has indeed proven to be a particularly nervous night for the tram and intercity companies. In 1900 the streetcar company had ten men guarding the lines at night, but had to increase this five years later to twenty. Despite their best efforts to clean rails that had been greased and remove rocks (especially on curves and hills), some of this vandalism resulted in accidents. In 1906, a crowded streetcar hit a rock and derailed, uninjured, at North 7th and I streets. Motorman McDonald was injured by flying glass in 1902 when the Point Defiance car collided with a train station that had been pushed into the lane at the Cheyenne and 42nd Street stop. The downhill track had also been greased. Another conductor in 1907 had quicklime thrown in his eyes and nearly went blind.

tacoma halloween
A suggestion for a “mystical dinner” for a Halloween party from the Tacoma Times, October 26, 1911. Photo courtesy of Washington State Library

A Respectable Tacoma Halloween

Trick-or-treating for candy began in the 1920s, but parties for children and adults were more popular in weeks close to holidays. Early parties often included divination games. There is a long history of fortune-telling made by young women to playfully determine the identity or profession of their future husband (or if they would marry at all). This included jumping over candles or bowls of water, popping nuts into the fire, or even peeling apples. Later games focused on the now familiar Halloween symbols. In 1949, the Tacoma News Tribune published a collection of children’s holiday games that included “Cat Scream”, “Witch Stocking”, and “Goblin Relay Race”, along with instructions on how to create a “chamber of horrors” tunnel.

The party was not particularly commercial in those early years. Pumpkins and food were the main sellers. Customers could find sweet cider, red apples, popcorn and chestnuts at the Pacific Fruit Company on Pacific Avenue in 1897 or buy penuche and fudge at the Rhodes Brothers department store in 1906. National brand candies had not yet become popular. Pumpkins were also a favorite purchase, both for pies and decorations. The arrival of country pumpkins in city markets was cause for celebration. The 11th and D Street Public Market created a festive scene on Halloween night in 1909 when Japanese farmers decorated their rented stalls with pumpkins.

tacoma halloween
A pumpkin pie filler advertisement from the October 22, 1953, issue of the Tacoma News Tribune. Photo credit: Washington State Library

Halloween in later years

Celebrations of the holiday were simpler during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but took on particular significance during World War II. South Tacoma USO
held Halloween parties for soldiers while Mayor Harry Cain urged people to have a “patriotic” Halloween in 1942. And, Police Chief Tom Ross added, “for victory’s sake , leave the junk heaps alone” rather than vandalize them. Everyone was told to stay home that year, lest enemy agents take advantage of the situation to commit sabotage. Their message seemed effective and it was celebrated as the most orderly Halloween in the town’s history.

The post-World War II baby boom increased the holiday’s focus on children. Schools frequently held Halloween parties and carnivals. The Lowell Elementary School PTA held a big romp in 1947, complete with a costume contest and divination. They sold soft drinks and snacks at the event. Leaders and teachers saw parties and structured activities as a way to keep children safe from harm during the holidays. For example, in 1953, the Youth Guidance Division of the police held a citywide dance at the Tacoma Armory. That same year, the city center Tacoma Kiwani APE club, Tacoma School District and Metropolitan Parks sponsored a Halloween art contest, organizing groups of students to paint store windows with festive designs.

tacoma halloween
Children from the St. Ann’s Home orphanage celebrate at a Halloween party hosted by the Blue Barons Motorcycle Club in 1959. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library, Richards Studio D123599-1

Celebrate in style

Shops increasingly catered to cheaters with Halloween costumes and decorations. Bakeries promoted donuts as ideal favors. Other bakery options were available for the holidays. People could pick up Van de Kamp’s elaborately iced Halloween-themed cakes or buy sugar cookies on sticks iced to look like pumpkins at Manning’s. Or they could try cooking a recipe from Gaynor Maddox’s “Eat Well for Less” column in the local newspaper. Popcorn balls and cookies were favorite Halloween treats.

Halloween remains a popular holiday today, enjoyed by many people. From sleight of hand to parties or whatever you choose to celebrate, we wish you a Happy Halloween!

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