Long before today’s social media outlets, people found cheap and colorful ways to broadcast their thoughts to friends, family members and acquaintances. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Halloween postcards of the early 20th century.
These cards and their colorful images are in some ways a precursor of today’s social media, sort of like Instagram for the Edwardian era (a period that’s defined roughly as starting in 1901 when Queen Victoria died and her son Edward became king, and lasting until the outbreak of World War I).
During their heyday, these postcards could be purchased for as little as a penny, or at most two for nickel. The cards gave their buyers a platform to show off a personal style, sense of humor, or even romantic longings. And like today’s social media messages, the words and pictures that were selected for public display often revealed more about the sender than the recipient.
But before we get into the cards themselves, here’s a little history:
Halloween postcards began to make an appearance in the U.S. in the late 19th century. Today collectors talk about a 20-year “golden age” of Halloween postcards from 1898 to 1918.
Though many of the artists and illustrators were American and the publishers were located in New York City, the cards were often printed in Germany. That’s because German printers offered the U.S. publishers an unbeatable combination of a high quality lithographic process and cheaper costs due to the low wages for their workers.
Publishers included Ralph Tuck and Sons, the International Art Publishing Company, Wolf Publishing, and Leubrie and Elkus.
Some of today’s most highly collectible cards were published by New York publisher John O. Winsch, from 1911 to 1915. Both women and men did the artwork for these cards, which I think is notable for an era during which women had few professional outlets.
Artists included Ellen H. Clapsaddle, who often illustrated children and used iconic Halloween images, like witches, jack o’lanterns and black cats in her work. However, on a Clapsaddle card the cats are cute kittens, not scary witch’s familiars, and the witches are adorable little girls.
Clapsaddle and other artists drew on elements of ancient Halloween traditions and superstitions as inspiration for their work. And one popular superstition that often shows up in the cards is more romantic than scary.
According to this legend, if a girl looks in a mirror on Halloween night she can catch a glimpse of her future husband. In some cards, the future spouse is a handsome hunk, and in others he’s a fright!
Another notable illustrator, Clare Victor Dwiggins, blended romance and fantasy in his work to create beautiful witches, which he dubbed “my witching queens.” The model for Dwiggins’s lovely “queens” was his wife, Betsy Lindsay.
Other highly collectible artists include H.B. Griggs, Samuel L. Schmucker, and Grace Gebbie Drayton.
Drayton is also famous for creating the Campbell’s Kids in 1904 for the Campbell Soup Company. These cartoon children were such a hit that they led to Campbell’s Kids dolls, t-shirts, cookbooks, and other products. The Campbell’s Kids are still the mascot of Campbell’s Soup today.
As a side note, I can see why Drayton went from drawing her Campbell’s Kids to making Halloween cards. Personally, I think the big-eyed, chubby-cheeked toddlers – wielding bats, no less- are only slightly less scary than many Halloween images.
A gallery of Halloween cards
Here’s a selection of vintage Halloween postcards. They cover the gamut from cute to wacky to frightening. I’ve tried to label them, though many defy description.
Spooky versions of the (then) latest technology:
Scary witches :
And even thorny theological questions (“Is there a heaven for pumpkinheads?”)
But these are just a small sampling – there are so many more wonderful cards! I hope that even from these few cards you can see that many of the images we traditionally associate with Halloween today came from the creative minds and colorful dreams of a few talented artists over a hundred years ago.
And whether you go in for nostalgic illustrations, like I do, or prefer more modern Halloween images of zombies and evil clowns, I hope your holiday is fun – even if some trick-or-treat traditions have to be modified this year. After all, what’s scarier than a global pandemic?
In any case, like this card says, I wish you and yours a merry Hallowe’en!
All postcard images are in the public domain, and come from collections curated by Wikimedia Commons, and also the Charleston County Public Library, the Toronto Public Library, and the Missouri History Museum