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The City Journals

Vintage newspapers shed light on past Halloween traditions

Oct 14, 2019 10:46AM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart

Photos of children enjoying Halloween parties at Midvale elementary schools appeared on the front page of the Midvale Sentinel on Nov. 4, 1960. (Image courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]

Halloween is a uniquely American holiday that is celebrated with parties, costumes and treats. Digital archives of Midvale’s newspaper going back to 1925 give some glimpses at how the autumn holiday has changed and how things have stayed the same. 

During the first half of the 20th century, community newspapers had society pages that described parties and get-togethers. It’s hard to imagine such a thing today, but it’s a remarkable glimpse into the everyday life of decades ago. 

Some Halloween parties had elaborate decorations and games. A note about the West Jordan Beautification Club’s party in 1939 included a “spook alley” where witches, black cats, jack-o’-lanterns and skeletons in coffins appeared. “During the blackout each guest put on a mask and sheet and sat in a circle, where a dismembered skeleton was passed for identification.”

Popular Halloween party refreshments in the 1930s and ‘40s included nuts, candy, doughnuts and apples. Hayrides and bonfires provided entertainment. Mischief was also common. The “Around Town with Edith Jenson” column published on October 29, 1943 included this note: “Take it easy on the windows Halloween night, kids!”

More malicious activities from the previous Halloween were noted in February 1945. The author described vandalism of street signs in the vicinity of Midvale junction. “One of the signs to receive treatment was the state road commission marker at the east city limits, which said, ‘Entering Midvale.’ After Halloween this sign read, ‘Entering Mudhole,’ and it has remained thus defaced for all of these months. Why the state road commission, or the local authorities, don’t have a new sign erected, is not known. As it now stands, the marker is a very poor advertisement for our fair city.”

In 1946, Midvale City and the local Kiwanis and Lions clubs planned a community party for children. The program included a movie followed by a costume parade and refreshments served around “huge bonfires.” Older youth danced to live music in the auditorium. The purpose of the party was to “provide fun for the children, and also keep them off the streets and out of mischief during that evening.”

“Halloween scenes” painted by junior high students are shown on the front page of the Midvale Sentinel published on Nov. 4, 1955. (Image courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

The event was a success and the planning committee received an outpouring of praise. One letter read, “Dear City Councilmen: We want to thank you for the Halloween party…It was more fun than begging. Your friends, Fourth Grade A”

Midvale’s Halloween party became an annual tradition where dozens of city departments and civic groups worked together to create a fun and safe place for children and teens.

Yet the November 3, 1949 edition included this note from the editor: “Midvale merchants were busy Wednesday morning cleaning the soap and wax from their windows as the aftermath of Halloween. It was presumed that with the extensive entertainment provided for the kids of all ages by the city and civic groups, this sort of thing would be eliminated. No doubt, much vandalism was avoided, but there are always a few kids who do not appreciate anything that is done for them.”

The next year, in an effort to discourage window soaping, the Midvale Chamber of Commerce began sponsoring an art contest. Junior high-aged youth were encouraged to paint “Halloween scenes” in the shop windows along Main Street with the winning team getting $25 (the same as $266 in today’s dollars).

During this time, parents and civic leaders aimed to end the practice of trick-or-treating altogether. An article published on October 28, 1955 quoted Don Nicol, the Halloween party chairman. He asked parents to cooperate by “discouraging children from going out on the old house-to-house routine.” Parents must have listened. The next issue of the paper quoted Chief of Police Joe Mazuran as saying it was “the quietest Halloween we ever had.”

But the next year when Halloween came around, the newspaper conceded that “The parties have never been 100% successful in ending ‘trick or treat.’ Those who go from door to door in traditional fashion are asked to stop only where the porch light is burning, signifying that the residents would like to have them call.” In 1957, the Halloween committee chairman repeated the request and added that “residents have already paid for the party through their contributions to the United Fund and should not be bothered on Halloween.”

A financial statement published on October 22, 1948 reported that $100 was to be spent on that year’s Halloween party. The party cost $600 in 1957 and $800 in 1968, the last year Midvale organized a citywide Halloween party.

On Halloween night in 1970 screams were heard coming from two homes on Holden Street. The buildings were abandoned and soon to be demolished to make way for highway construction. A passerby reported a “gang fight” and six squad cars responded.

As it turns out, the police raided a harmless church party. Midvale Stake officials had received permission to use the buildings and created a “spook alley” to entertain the young people in the neighborhood. According to an article published on Nov. 5, “finding only fun and no fights, the officers told everyone to have fun and went on with their business of looking for Halloween mischief, which was mighty scarce.”