Halloween in Old Photos: Three Clues to Spot

By Maureen A. Taylor

This weekend ghouls, goblins and princesses will ring my doorbell looking for treats. There will also be some movie characters as well such as Darth Vader given the interest in the new film. The choice of costumes at every Halloween reflects what figures are popular at the cinema, on television and in news. This has been true since the beginning of Halloween celebrations.

To spot the costume clues in your family photographs remember these three things.

Costumed Affairs

Fancy Dress Ball Costumes, 1880s. Library of Congress

Victorian-era ancestors loved to dress up for private Halloween parties, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that kids dressing up for parties became commonplace. Many towns held parades so that kids and adults could show off their themed attire.

Not all costumed ancestors depict Halloween. There were dress-up parties for New Years and themed parades before Thanksgiving. In Thanksgiving Day Masquerade, I explored the clues in a picture of four children in costume. It’s important not to jump to conclusions when you see a child dressed up.

Handmade Clues
Most of the costumes seen in early 20th century pictures of kids in dress-up were homemade. Paper patterns were available from the Pictorial Patterns Co. You can find a wide range of vintage patterns on a wiki site devoted to sharing older ones. You can see which costumes were popular when, as well as find your favorite childhood design.

Commercially produced costumes weren’t available until the 1930s. Browse the Sears Catalogs on to see your grandmother’s costume choices.

Both of these sites give you a opportunity to see what themes were popular for dress-up in earlier generations.

Photo Evidence
To pinpoint the exact year of a Halloween picture, look beyond the clothing to two details on the picture.

  • Photographer’s name: Use city directories to discover when a photographer was in business. Department stores offered photo services to customers inviting them to pose in the Halloween costumes.
  • Stamp box on a Real Photo Postcard: The stamp box on the back of a postcard identifies the paper manufacturer and the design helps narrow down a time frame. Use Playle’s guide to determine a tentative date.

Watch the background of the picture for clues to where it was taken, such as a backyard, store signage or vehicle.

Researching historical Halloween pictures and traditions in period newspapers on a site such as might give you ideas for this year’s celebration. You could be the first person in your family to hold a vintage bash.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now