Halloween and picture postcards have a shared history, and both captured the anglophone imagination at the turn of the twentieth century. As the October 31st festival began to emerge in its modern guise thanks, in part, to an influx of immigrants from the British Isles in the United States, picture postcards entered their so-called “golden era”, ca. 1905–1915. Rarely seen or used in the US before 1893, an estimated 900 million postcards had been mailed two decades later. And quite a few of these were Halloween themed. Historian Lisa Morton reckons that around 3,000 unique designs for spooky cards were created in the golden era alone, cards which helped popularize the celebration and standardize its imagery. Viewing them today, much of the iconography is familiar — black cats, jack-o’-lanterns, witches’ brooms — but many of the games and rituals have fallen out of favor: scrying, ducking or bobbing for apples, pranks involving cows. Viewing these archival postcards at length is a somewhat uncanny experience — missives intended for other eyes than our own arriving instantaneously to greet us through digital displays. It’s almost as if the postcards never actually reached their final destination, and might not have still. Hurling through time, carrying images of long-gone landscapes and the heartfelt messages of deceased speakers, the picture postcard is a well-matched medium for a day when the dead are said to be given one last chance to seek vengeance on their enemies.
Below you will find a selection of Halloween picture postcards, most created in the “golden era”, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, the New York Public Library, the Toronto Public Library, and Digital Maryland. It’s a hodgepodge of hobgoblins, joyous skeletons, and truly terrifying gourds. Personified pumpkins drive automobiles, line up to salute the toes of young women, and saunter on high heels fashioned from turnips. Cats do their usual thing — creating charming chaos. They pop out of jack-o’-lanterns with sealed letters in their paws and dig their claws into the bewitched full moon. Several of the postcards contain scenes of scrying and amorous divination: girls using mirrors, candles, and backward steps to reveal their future husbands.
Whether you are trick-or-treating, marathoning scary movies, or trying to avoid the gaze of ghouls this All Hallows’ Eve, The Public Domain Review wishes you safe passage and a successful arrival at your intended destination.
Oct 29, 2011