Cooking Up History: Homemade Halloween

This post was written by Rachel Gordon, Visitor Services Specialist in the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement. It was originally published on Minerva’s Kaleidoscope: Resources for Kids & Families Blog.

For Halloween 2020, we’re all going to be staying much closer to home than is the norm. That made me wonder what we might discover from looking back in the Library’s collections to a time when celebrations were more domestic than they (usually) are now.

Old newspapers contain a wealth of information and ideas, and the Library of Congress has one of the most extensive newspaper collections in the world. Chronicling America* allows you to search hundreds of years’ worth of American newspapers, and the 1950s seemed like a good place for me to start. Celebrations were in full swing but with treats, costumes, and fun that were generally more homemade than commercial. New convenience foods meant there were all kinds of time-saving ingredients the ’50s woman could whip up into holiday treats for her children. Newspaper ads and articles of the time all have the same message – a housewife was expected to do this while keeping a spotless house and serving three home-cooked meals a day to her family, always in fabulous clothes and full make-up.

Advertisement. Evening Star (Washington, DC), October 29, 1950

The Washington, D.C. Evening Star paper is a fascinating time capsule of the period, and offers recipes and activities including:

“PUMPKIN COOKIES,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), October 31, 1954

Good Things to Eat at a Halloween Party (10/29/1950), includes background history on the holiday as well as recipes for Popcorn Balls, and Orange Gelatin Jack O’Lanterns. Both these are worth a try; they’re likely to be hits with a 21st-century audience, too.

Brownies on sticks (1952 and 1954) are a clever variation on cake pops and pumpkin-filled oatmeal cookies can be decorated with jack o’ lantern faces for Halloween or left plain for Thanksgiving.

Hot chocolate Witches’ Brew is an easy and yummy-sounding drink option from 1954 as is Hot Spiced Orange Juice – although I’d advise tweaking the ingredients a bit. There is enough of a sugar overload on Halloween without adding a whole cup of it to a blend of juices and spices!

Decorated devil eggs

“FOR THE MYSTICAL NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), October 27, 1953

Savory suggestions for your party table include deviled eggs that become Goblin Eggs with the addition of spooky faces made from sliced peppers and spices. Red Devils are hot dogs dressed up with a spicy, ketchup-based sauce.

Should you want a change from cooking activities, kids can try their hands at mask making. Paper bags and aluminum foil can become imaginative additions to a Halloween costume, using materials you probably already have around the house.

That’s the “treat” section of this Halloween post; here’s a “trick” for sneaking in an educational side too.

All these recipes add math and chemistry elements to the fun of making something good to eat. Old newspapers provide a snapshot of earlier times; the 1950s ads are particularly intriguing in this respect. The “proper” role of women is clearly defined, limited, and most definitely “frightful.” Supermarket ads, like this Safeway one from 1954 might not initially seem worth a second look, but they are mini-lessons in economics and history themselves. The price of food in the 1950s is a clear example of inflation and changes in the cost of living. The images, designs, and foods show what was popular at the time. If you still get a newspaper in hard copy, kids can make side by side comparisons with the weekly advertising inserts from today’s supermarkets – often from the very same stores.

Happy Halloween!

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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