As Iowa heads into fall, our museum looks forward to the many simple pleasures the season brings us. Ripe corn, cool mornings, coffee on the woodstove, and fuzzy wool overcoats. It’s also a season for traditions.
A favorite tradition in modern Iowa is Halloween trick-or-treating. For some, the night includes haunted houses, hayrack rides, parties and candy–we look forward to it every year. Living History Farms’ Family Halloween nights are a highlight of the year as hundreds of kids and parents visit the museum in costumes for trick-or-treating, a pumpkin walk, and spooky story telling.
Is this particular tradition a modern one or something much older? Halloween or All Hallows Eve is attributed to many different ancient cultures, including Romans, Celts, Druids, Vikings, medieval Europe, early Catholic traditions, and so on. The ancient premise was that Halloween was the night when spirits of the dead and fairies and demons of the supernatural realm, returned to earth. Later, different cultural groups celebrated with their own particular traditions, exporting them to the United States as they immigrated.
In the 19th century, what could Iowans look forward to on Halloween night? A lot of pranks and mischief! According Des Moines’ Iowa State Register of October 31, 1871, “Tonight is Halloween, when witches, devils and other mischief making beings are supposed to be abroad . . . and those aerial people, the fairies, are said to hold their grand anniversary . . . We know of some bewitching little fairies . . . that intend to play the mischief tonight. Mum’s the word, though.” Halloween had become a night for boys to creep around pulling pranks.
What mischief are they talking about? The most common mischief was taking your neighbors’ garden or barnyard gates off the hinges and leaving it in someone else’s yard. The Sioux City Journal reported in November, 1878 that “Hallowe’en was duly celebrated by the youngsters. Very few gates escaped their attentions and a number of them have not been found yet. Several were found hanging on lamp posts in different parts of the city and otherwise disposed of. Such as could not handily be taken from the hinges were wired closely shut. . . A good deal of lawless mischief was done . . .”
Pulling up cabbages and shrubs out of the garden was a common trick. Cabbages had been an Irish Halloween tradition—supposedly pulling one on Halloween night would tell you who were going to marry. This tradition became part of the overall night’s mischief in America. The Iowa State Leader mourned the loss of some nice shrubs and trees on the outskirts of Des Moines due to Halloween revelers in the 1870s.
Wagons were pushed into the lane or the street, or if the imps were ambitious, left on top of the barn roof. The Bode Republican reported in 1890 that a “Mr. Nowlan’s road cart” had been placed on the lower grain elevator roof overnight. He complained and threatened to have certain boys arrested. The next night the cart ended up on the very top roof, even higher, of the elevator. Evidently, the boys refused to be threatened.
Corn and beans were tossed at windows to scare the household. Barrels and boxes were moved and business signs switched or left on others’ property. In 1884, the Perry, Iowa newspaper reported many signs in town being switched for others—the church was labeled a “billiard parlor” and a farm machinery store was labeled as a second hand store. Occasionally, even the outhouse or small farm sheds might be tipped over or moved.
These pranks were somewhat well-tolerated—if not encouraged and expected. Newspaper editors often printed reminders that, “boys would be boys,” and that many readers had done as much or more when they were young. But there was also a steady stream of complaints by homeowners as pranks become more destructive. In 1890, a newspaper in Algona reported boys covering windows in tar! Newspapers reported injuries due to loosened boards in boardwalks or cows out due to opened gates. Near Waterloo, a young mischief maker was shot by a shopkeeper who feared he was being robbed instead of pranked. When a group of young boys took an organ out of a nearby church and cut the bellows open in the rural community of Grove, Iowa in 1893, locals were appalled. In the 1880s and 1890s, several towns began to hire extra police and evening patrols for Halloween. Dubuque reportedly hired 50 extra policemen for Halloween in 1883. Boys caught by police were brought before a judge and fined for the damage done.
Luckily, in the later 1880s and 1890s, Halloween socials and parties were added to the fun, providing some alternatives to mass mischief. Social columns reported private parties for big and little kids. Many schools and even churches had Halloween frolics. Apple bobbing, versions of hide and seek, and even fortune telling games were standard. Jack-o-lanterns were also common party decorations.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, trick-or-treating made its appearance, giving younger children an option for Halloween fun. But the mischief continued! In some places, like Des Moines, parents worried about having their young children out on Halloween to collect candy when their older siblings might be out pulling pranks. This lead to the tradition in some Iowa communities of having a Beggar’s Night the day before Halloween. Little kids could collect candy then, leaving the night of Halloween open for the big kids’ pranks. There are arguments that the mischief continues to this day, in spite of the precautions.
So my recommendation, in the words of the Davenport Democrat in October, 1891, “Next Saturday night the gates must be tied, signs nailed fast, cabbages pad-locked, vehicles fastened in the shed and everything loose about the place fixed firmly to something that will stand a considerable pressure. It will be Hallowe’en.” Or better yet, join us as for Living History Farms’ Family Halloween nights! There will be lots for active little spirits, merry not scary story-telling, popcorn and treats, and plenty of volunteers to keep everyone safe and happy!