I am the masked figure in the middle. Back in the 1950s, we actually felt sorry for the few students who had to wear Hallowe’en costumes purchased from the dime store, like the one on the left. Most of my friends were able to improvise a costume from their parents’ or older sibling’s closets. The black mask with a lace veil (possibly dating back to the 1920s) had been worn by my mother, who also suggested that I should be a “Gypsy Fortune Teller.” [We were not aware of the persecution of the Romany people back then.] The necklace with coins was also from one of her old masquerade costumes (“Arabian”, as was the bolero), and she added a hem to a flowered child’s skirt and produced a flowered hankie headscarf to finish the look. The girl on the right is a female Lone Ranger. Most kids had a cowboy or cowgirl suit in the late 40s and 50s. They were often Christmas presents. Here I am riding a float in a Redwood City Fourth of July Parade in the late 1940s:
As you can see, these four little girls all came equipped with cowgirl outfits, as did the adult rodeo “queen” behind us. We all wanted to be Dale Evans and ride a beautiful horse (hers was named “Buttermilk”) and catch rustlers and other miscreants.
Hallowe’en Costumes: You Used What You Had
Other popular and easy, no-purchase-necessary Hallowe’en disguises were:
“Hobo”– burnt-cork stuble on your face, a raggedy, old, man’s jacket with patches, your Dad’s old felt hat, and a bundle tied in a bandana hanging on a stick over your shoulder.
“Doctor” — a toy stethoscope around your neck plus a mirrored eye reflector on a headband (a cheap “doctor” set from the 5 & 10 cent store), worn with an old, white, man’s shirt as a lab coat. Shirt and Necktie required. I don’t remember the “lab coats” being smeared with “blood” but some may have been.
“Nurse” — a white dress or white apron, a starched nurses’ cap (paper would do,) plus a toy nurse’s bag with a red cross on the side (also from the dime store, it was a toy you already had, not one purchased for the occasion.)
“Princess, Good Witch, or Ballerina” — your big sister’s many-layered, white or pastel crinoline petticoat worn over your bathing suit. A Princess got a gold foil crown or a tiara (usually your mom’s or sister’s from a long-ago dance); a Ballerina usually wore her shoes from dance class plus a tiara and maybe some lipstick and rouge; and a Good Witch added a wand with a home-made foil star on top. (The Good Witch from Wizard of Oz was an option for girls whose sisters had pink crinolines.)
“Pirate” — pants cut short and ragged at the bottom, a striped tee or Mom’s big-sleeved blouse, a bolero vest (could be from your old cowboy suit, minus fringe,) with a black or red head scarf, plus an eyepatch. Striped socks were a plus. Wooden sword optional. One gold hoop earring — clip-on — mandatory.
What all these outfits had in common was: You used what you had. Some kids had home made-costumes sewn from store-bought patterns and cloth. But at my house, and most of my friends’ houses, we improvised. (You can see some 1950’s children’s Hallowe’en costume patterns at the blog witness2fashion. Click here.)
My parent’s generation grew up in Redwood City before and during the First World War. Halloween pranks then were often destructive and sometimes pay-back for real or imagined mistreatment. Windows would be “soaped” — written on — at houses where treats were not forthcoming, and the neighborhood grouch, who cursed the kids who stole his apples, might receive some rough treatment.
In those days before sewage treatment plants and municipal sewer systems, teenaged boys occasionally got into deep doo-doo by waiting in the dark until their victim had entered his outhouse. A gang of boys would sneak up behind the little building and try to push it over — preferably with the occupant still going about his business inside. This was an ill-advised stunt, since, once the outhouse started to tip, the pusher might fall into the suddenly exposed cesspit underneath it. That could be a life-threatening experience, and, even if you were quickly rescued, you were also quickly apprehended — and easy to identify!
The Gate Up the Flagpole
Both my parents grew up in Redwood City, so my father and his seven brothers knew my mother and her siblings from childhood. Once, over Thanksgiving dinner in the 70s, my father and my mother’s older sister began reminiscing about Hallowe’ens gone by. Dorothy recalled a great injustice suffered because of a Halloween prank: Somebody stole the front gate from her home, and it was eventually discovered hanging from the top of a flagpole downtown. Her father was furious. “Pa thought Mel and I knew who put it up there, and he gave us a beating because we wouldn’t tell. But we couldn’t tell, because we really didn’t know!”
My father looked at her with some surprise. A slow grin began to form on his face, but he tried to suppress it. “Dorothy, really. . . . Couldn’t you guess?”
I saw the scales drop from her eyes. All at once, a little girl who had been unfairly punished looked out from her 75- year-old face.
She stared at my father across the table for a long, long time. (Dorothy was a master at family feuds, as I described in The Icebox Battle. ) Then, slowly, she relaxed and became, again, a dignified older lady quietly eating her turkey dinner. We all let out our breaths. I suppose she had realized — just in time — that she was running out of relatives, and that my father was the only person alive who still remembered her as a child; or, perhaps, she had mellowed a bit over the years.
Happy Halloween; save some candy for later, and do not tip over any outhouses.
[Edited for typos on 10/30/14 @ 12 p.m.]