Halloween in the 1800s in America and Great Britain

The name “Halloween” evolved over time. It was shortened from All Hallows’ Even and All Hallows Day — the evening of All Hallows’ Day and another name for All Saints’ Day, respectively. Eventually, it was contracted to “Halloween and just as the name Halloween evolved, the holiday evolved too throughout Great Britain and the United States.

Halloween in the 1800s - Painting by William Sidney Mount from 1838 of a Tea Leaf Reading at a Halloween Party

Painting by William Sidney Mount from 1838 of a tea leaf reading at a Halloween Party. Public domain.

Halloween was initially influenced by Celtic-speaking countries with traditions such as Samhain, the ancient Celtic New Year celebrated near the end of October. Another influence was All Hallows’ Eve. It was a day commemorated in May by Catholics for saints. Despite uneasiness by the church, the day became associated with supernatural ideas, particularly after repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague occurred. All Souls’ Day also influenced Halloween. It was celebrated to honor the dead, and, similar to All Hallows’ Even, there was increased interest in death and the supernatural.

With supernatural leanings, customs related to Halloween also evolved. For instance, All Souls’ Day was celebrated by sharing small round cakes, known as “soul cakes.” These cakes were distributed door-to-door and given to soulers — primarily children and the poor. Each cake was considered to be a soul and each cake bought a soul respite from purgatory’s flames. This practice of giving and receiving is supposedly the origin for trick-or-treating.

Costumes associated with Halloween may have started in France during the fourteenth and fifteenth century as the French were known for dressing in costumes. After Guy Fawkes’ Day was established, celebrating revelers began to wear masks and demand beer and cakes. Many other Halloween’s activities soon became associated with Guy Fawkes’ Day, which supposedly diminished the holiday’s popularity in Great Britain.

If Halloween was diminished in Great Britain it apparently did little to douse Queen Victoria’s enthusiasm for the holiday in the 1800s. She celebrated the holiday at Balmoral Castle that was steeped in tradition. Preparations for the event were also begun days beforehand. For instance, because bonfires were burned at the celebration and because they were created from boxes and wooden crates, these were saved throughout the year.

Balmoral Castle in the background with image of Queen Victoria and mention of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Courtesy of British Museum.

Nearly everyone in Great Britain also celebrated the holiday. Farmers and tenants came from far and wide to join in the festivities at Balmoral, but of all those celebrating perhaps, Queen Victoria was the most enthusiastic. She noted in her diary on 31 October 1867 that she had taken a drive with someone and had to hurry back in order to be in time for the celebration. Moreover, one Balmoral Halloween celebration involving the Queen in 1871 was printed in the Morning Post and follows:

“The old Scottish festival of ‘Halloween’ was celebrated at Balmoral Castle with unusual eclat. The demonstration has come to be known in Balmoral and throughout the district as “The Queen’s Halloween;” and in accordance with the royal desire, and following the custom of past years, most of the people, both on the Balmoral and Abergeldie estates, turned out on Tuesday night, and formed a torchlight procession, which had a picturesque and imposing appearance.

Those who came from the east side of Balmoral met at the entrance to the grounds to the east of the Castle, where the torches were lighted. The Balmoral contingent, including the servants, ghillies, and the tenants on the west wide, met at Mr. Grant’s, and lighted their torches there. This party, headed by Mr. Ross, her Majesty’s piper, then began their march towards the Castle, while the party from the east side marched past the front of the Castle, and on by the carriage drive through the lawn to meet those from the west. When the two parties came in sight of each other and joined their forces the sight was very fine. There were altogether from 180 to 200 torchbearers; and her Majesty, with several other members of the royal family, viewed the scene with evident leisure and satisfaction.

Her Majesty – whose health is now so much improved that she was able to drive out and witness the junction of the two miniature armies to the west of the Castle – came back to the Castle at walking pace, and remained for fully an hour an interested spectator of the proceedings. After the torchbearers had promenaded for some time, the torches were heaped in a pile on the roadway a little to the west, and in full view from the windows of the Castle. Empty boxes and other material were soon added, and in a gentle breeze helping to fan the flames. Her Majesty, Beatrice, and the ladies and gentlemen of the suite then retired indoors, and took up positions at the windows to see the rest of the merry-making.

Dancing was begun with great vigour round the bonfire to the strains of Mr. Ross’s bagpipes, and refreshments were served to all and sundry by Mr. Collins, sergeant-footman. The demonstration culminated in a vehicle containing a well got-up effigy of the Halloween witch being drawn to the fire by a band of sturdy Highlanders. The “witch” had a number of boys for a guard of honour, headed by the piper, and in the rear came Mr. Cowley, her Majesty’s jager, whose workmanship the effigy was. The boys, who each carried a blazing torch, set up a ringing cheer, and at a given signal Mr. Cowley and a ghillie pitched the effigy into the flames amid tremendous cheering, the royal party from the window having a good view of the burning of the “wrinkled hag o’ wicked fame.” The tire was kept up for a long time with fresh fuel, and when all had danced till “they could almost dance no longer,” the health of her Majesty was proposed by Mr. Cowley, and responded to with the utmost enthusiasm, accompanied by three times three rounds of vociferous cheering. Later on in the evening the servants and others about the Castle enjoyed a dance in the ghillie hall. The ball broke up at an early hour on Wednesday morning.”[1]

Halloween and Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria celebrating Halloween. Public domain.

Anglican colonists living in the south and Catholic colonists in Maryland all recognized All Hallow’s Eve while Puritans remained opposed to the holiday. Almanacs of the late 18th and early 19th century do not indicate that Halloween was widely observed in the United States. Halloween was also initially thought of as a quaint practice and confined to immigrant communities during the mid-1800s and thought of as being celebrated “amongst the old-style English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh residents.”[2] Furthermore, when mentions of Halloween appeared in the mid-1800s the idea of superstition and love was attached to it as indicated in Grahams’ American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion of 1849:

“In the United States, Halloween used to be observed by country maidens as a time for trying sweethearts, and gaining such an intelligible peep into futurity as would enable them to find out whether they would be married or not; and if that happy event was to crown their lives, who would be the man of their choice.”[3]

The holiday’s popularity appears to have not begun until the massive Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century, which then involved them celebrating Halloween by telling ghost stories, playing games, and making mischief. Critics, however, thought any superstitions utter nonsense and old fashioned. For example, the St. Nicholas Magazine created for children stated in November of 1875:

“All superstitions are foolish. To fasten a horseshoe to the door to procure good-luck, or to throw salt over the shoulder to prevent it; to be glad to have first seen a new moon over the right; or sad to be sitting thirteen at table; to turn twice around before setting out a second time; to frame a mental wish after speaking simultaneously the same words with another, are practices unworthy of our day, making children of grown people and fools of boys and girls. To believe that the gift of a crooked sixpence betokens good fortune, or of a knife, bad; that killing a swallow will make cows give bloody milk, or that crossing your stocking before going to bed insure happy dreams; that beginning a work on Friday is unlucky, or a thrice-repeated dream a prediction, are each and all as silly as to lay food before an idol of wood … Religion is one thing; superstition another. The two are opposites. The former pays honor to God; the latter does homage to Ignorance.”[4]

Beginning in the early 1870s there began to be more mentions of Halloween. For instance, many cities and groups offered some form of Halloween celebration that ranged from meals to dances to concerts. One Halloween celebration in 1875 in Fall River, Massachusetts included all of those activities and was hosted by the Scottish Caledonian Society:

“Halloween – The Caledonian Society of this city, intend to celebrate ‘Hallowe’en,’ on Friday evening 29th, inst., in good style, at their rooms in Carrollton Hall building, with a supper, concert and ball.”[5]

It was reported that in the southern portion of America there was a tendency for southerners to play Snapdragon at Halloween, despite it being a game that was exceedingly popular with English citizens at Christmastime. Perhaps it had to do with the eerie effects generated by the dousing of lights and the burning of brandy.

A family playing Snapdragon in 1858 From Illustrated London News by Charles Keene. Author’s collection.

By the late 1800s, Halloween home parties became popular. Magazines began to print Halloween recipes and provide decorating ideas for housewives. This also resulted in creative invitations sent out that highlighted a woman’s crafting skills. American newspapers were also more regularly describing how the Halloween holiday was being embraced and celebrated countrywide. One description appeared in the following report published in 1875 by The Inter Ocean:

“The night devoted to fortune-telling, nut-burning, love tests, and ‘touz’ling.’ … It is the last night of October, the closing of the summer and the autumn; and standing upon the threshold of winter … While people have become too sensible in these practical days to believe in omens and ‘ghaists,’ there was just as much sense in the old love-tests of Hallowe’en as in the modern devotion to Spiritualism, for while the former caused the lassies hearts to thump, the latter turns their head. The night is observed this year upon Monday, owing to the last day of October falling upon a Sunday. While in the cities the old folks are not perhaps so much inclined to encourage ‘such foolishness,’ away in many a comfortable farmsteading the lads and lassies will gather as did their forebears across the sea around the kindly fireside, and while the rafters re-echo with … their loud infectious laughter, the minds of the auld anes will wander back to the days of langsyne, when they, too, burned their nuts, and pulled their stocks, and held their Hallowe’en.”[6]

As Halloween gained traction among Americans, the Good Housekeeping magazine also described a 1890 Halloween party in pleasurable terms but still different from how we think of Halloween today:

“A Halloween party is a pleasant variation from the usual autumn merry-makings in the country. The farm-house kitchen is the fittest place — if of the old-fashioned, roomy sort — to try all the charms which tradition makes so potent on the night of the 31st of October. The company may be as numerous or as exclusive as one likes. Even a tiny ‘goose party’ would be delightful. But most young people would prefer to have more and be merrier. The only condition necessary is that the rooms shall not be crowded. There should be spare room enough to try and to witness the various charms. Twenty or 30 young men and women, in equal numbers, made a goodly company for the purpose. An old-fashioned fire-place affords the fittest center for the evening’s games, but one can do very well without such a rallying-place.”[7]

Halloween party

Halloween party of the 1800s. Author’s collection.

The Halloween we celebrate now has evolved from a variety of traditions that have been melded together. It is usually celebrated today with pumpkins, a relative modern invention with the idea of a jack o’lantern being first mentioned in writing in children’s magazines in 1860s. However, jack o’lanterns became increasingly popular so that by the 1920s carving pumpkins had become a tradition embraced by most Americans, which then also made its way overseas to Great Britain and resulted in farmers growing special pumpkins for pumpkin carving. In addition, Halloween parties, costumes, and “trick or treating” that make up Halloween festivities today in America and Great Britain, did not actually become the norm until the 1930s.

Halloween in the 1800s - jack o'lantern

Today’s typical type of jack o’lantern carving. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] “Celebration of Hallowe’en at Balmoral,” in Morning Post, 6 November 1871, p. 6.
  • [2] Bannatyne, Lesley, Halloween, 1998, kindle.
  • [3] Grahams’ American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion, Volumes 34-35, 1849, p. 158.
  • [4] St Nicholas, volume 2, 1875, p. 28.
  • [5] “The City,” in Fall River Daily Evening News, 16 October 1875, p. 2.
  • [6]”Hallowe’en,” in The Inter Ocean, 30 October 1875, p. 4.
  • [7] Good Housekeeping, Volume 11, 1890, p. 268.

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