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Two important developments influenced the emergence of Halloween as we know it in the early 19th century:

Irish immigration and the changes in Victorian society.

Irish immigration  already greatly increased  in the 1820s due to the need for labor in the Northeast.  Small but tight communities developed in growing cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Providence. From 1820 to 1860, 1,956,557 Irish arrived, 75% of these after the Great Irish Famine (or The Great Hunger, Irish: An Gorta Mór) of 1845–1852, struck. Most Irish immigrants to the United States during this period favored large cities because they could create their own communities for support and protection in a new environment. Another reason for this trend was that many Irish immigrants could not afford to move inland and had to settle close to the ports at which they arrived.  Cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants included Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. (Wikipedia). And wherever the Irish went, their rich Halloween folk beliefs came along and the celebration spread.

Because these traditions came from immigrant (and thus mostly poor) populations, they came to be associated with rowdiness, mischief, and crime because these were qualities the powerful upper classes ascribed to the poor. Often the evening was full of rioting as masquerading party goers took to the streets, and petty crime was not uncommon. In order to control the debauchery, the holiday had to be rebranded into a celebration that would reflect America’s values and shape its citizens. To accomplish that rebranding, newspapers, social workers, churches, and educators promoted holidays and recreation to identify and solidify national values through pastimes. Their efforts were effective enough that “by the 1870s, Halloween appears as one of the best holidays to turn children into good Americans” through community gatherings and adult sanctioned games that would teach them about their future roles as adult men and women (Lhrem 204).

With children as its target audience, the campaign suggested that Halloween was a celebration best done in the home where hosts would offer dinner, games, and storytelling, all within a properly controlled environment under adult supervision. This change effectively moved the holiday from the public to the private sphere where it was safely domesticated. Of course, one would require a certain amount of wealth to be able to host such a party, so clearly the new version of Halloween was directed at middle class families and their children. Source

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Mother and daughter fancy dress costumes, Le Follet Courrier des Salons, 1832.

Queen Victoria acceeded to the English throne in 1837. In 1840, she married Albert, and in the course of the following 18 years, the two had nine surviving children. Family life was very important to them, they enjoyed spending time with their children, which in turn influenced English society. The attitude towards children changed in the course of the long Victorian era. A need for play and recreation for youth was identified. Christmas was gradually transformed in this period, and it would be followed by other festivals such as Valentine´s Day, Easter, etc. Halloween was no exception. (Source)

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Childrens´ fancy dress costumes, 1833

Fancy-dress parties and balls became hugely popular throughout vast swathes of Victorian society, a form of entertainment for both adults and, increasingly, children that was taken very seriously and around which a whole industry grew. Children’s fancy dress had impeccable credentials: Queen Victoria encouraged her own children to dress up and then drew them. She and Prince Albert gave a Fancy Dress Children’s Ball at Buckingham Palace in 1859 and from the 1860s onwards such events simply snowballed. They were often held at Christmas, to raise money for charities and/or celebrate national events like jubilees and royal wedding anniversaries.

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Children´s fancy dress party, c.1850

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Godeys Lady´s Book,1853

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FancyDress ca. 1860s

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Charles L. Dodgson, Alice and Lorina Liddell, 1860s

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A more ludic, and often more child-led form of dressing up was as popular in the nineteenth century as it is today. There are references and allusions to dressing-up games in countless memoires and fictional narratives as well as various visual sources.  Molly Hughes’ account of her 1870’s childhood is typical:  “When the mood took us we would push back the dining-room table and act charades. The main point was to appear different from usual, putting on a bonnet of mother’s, a pillow to make us fat, my father’s top hat or overcoat.”  

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Fancy Dress party for children, 1873

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Charles L. Dodgson, Xie 1873

Hughes recalls that on wet weather days during holidays in Cornwall, one of the family activities was charades or – on one occasion – a full play:  “Old wardrobes and chests were ransacked for our dressings-up, and there was much competition for a blue quilted petticoat, a many-coloured silk shawl that mother had brought from Spain, and a black velvet cape lined with crimson.”  The fact that the play never comes to fruition is not important since ‘the dressing-up was the chief attraction’. Whether as an end in itself or part of games of charades or home theatricals, children frequently dressed up as specific characters from books and stories. Source
Modes de Paris fashion plate No.3925 c.1874
Children in Fancy Dress,Modes de Paris, 1874
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CharlesL. Dodgson, Ethel Hatch dressed up as a Turk, 1877
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Fancy dress, 1878 France, Journal des Demoiselles
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Fancy dress, 1887 France, La Mode Illustree
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Fancy dress, 1891 France, La Mode Illustree
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Throughout the 19th century the burgeoning middle classes popularised and sanitised fancy dress parties in the way only Victorians could. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s interest in fancy dress helped to grow its popularity, and an emphasis towards privately held parties rather than lavish public affairs took hold. This in turn led to the tradition of the ‘fancy portrait’ among artistic and literary circles. Source

While wearing costumes at Halloween is recorded in Scotland in 1895, there is little evidence of costumes in England, Ireland, or the United States prior to 1900, however. Early Halloween costumes emphasized the pagan and gothic nature of Halloween, and were aimed primarily at children.Source  This suggests that the tradition of dressing up arose from the practice of “guising” and playing pranks, perhaps in combination with playing parlor games and charades during some of these parties.

None of the costumes shown in this blog entry are Halloween costumes, but they are examples of childrens´ fancy dress costumes through the 19th century.

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