Source: The Sunday Oregonian, Oct. 29, 1916

Today when most of us think of Halloween we probably think mainly of children’s activities like trick-or-treating and community parties. Looking back at the early 20th Century we find many similarities in the ways Halloween was celebrated, but also some striking differences.

For example, the old tradition of Halloween pranks that came to the United States with Scottish and Irish immigrants in the mid-19th Century was gleefully taken up by boys (mostly) all over the country. In rural areas, which parts of Montavilla still were then, popular tricks were putting wagons and livestock on barn roofs, digging up vegetables in gardens, tipping over outhouses, and removing gates to let livestock escape. (These customs persisted into the mid-20th Century— I remember my father telling me about outhouse tipping in rural Montana.)

In the cities, Halloween devilry could be more dangerous and destructive. The Oregonian of November 1, 1910 proclaimed “Rowdyism Is Rife.” It reported three false fire alarms and a cable stretched across a streetcar track that caused the car to wrench from the tracks, hurling passengers from their seats. In 1907, Juvenile Court Judge Calvin U Gantenbein handled 40 cases of Halloween delinquents, including a youth who greased a streetcar on a downgrade hoping to cause a runaway car, which, of course, could have killed or injured many passengers. The delinquents, he said, thought they were justified because it was Halloween (The Oregon Daily Journal, October 28, 1908).

Nationally, Halloween violence and looting grew even worse during the Great Depression, although the local mischief described by The Montavilla Times of October 30, 1931 was of a milder sort. One popular prank was covering windows with bar soap and tallow, dumping garbage cans on front lawns and cutting down clothes lines. According to The Montavilla Times of Oct. 31, 1929, you could foil such window smearing by washing windows with glycerine or kerosene.

Despite the Halloween devilry, in the early 20th Century, parties were the most common way to celebrate the holiday. These could be held in homes or social halls by private individuals or organizations. They could be for adults and/or for children. Since, by this time, Halloween had also become more commercialized hosts could buy ready-made Halloween merchandise and consult books, magazines and newspapers about how to plan a successful event. They could buy Halloween cards, masks, party favors, noisemakers, pumpkin pies, even special Halloween cookies.

Ad in The Montavilla Times, Oct. 23, 1931

Ad in The Montavilla Times, Oct. 30, 1931

Adult parties tended to be more on the spooky side, and carried forward many of the customs and themes that go back to Celtic celebrations of the transition between the bounty of the fall harvest and the dormancy of winter. Called Samhain (pronounced sow-in), this was commemorated the night of October 31, a time when the ghosts of the dead supposedly returned to earth.

This association of ghosts with Halloween, of course, continues to the present. It was also a popular theme in early Montavillan celebrations. At one Montavilla party in 1902, for instance, a ghost greeted guests at the door and another ghost provided each of them with a sheet and pillowcase, so everyone could be ghosts. Lights were turned low— some hosts used only jack-o’-lanterns— to create an appropriately eerie atmosphere.

Another common feature starting with late Victorian adult parties was foretelling the future. This practice again goes back to the Celts, who believed their priests (Druids) were assisted by the returning ghosts in predicting the future. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, this translated into games meant to predict women’s marital prospects. A common game of bobbing for apples was played to determine which young lady would marry first. Often parties also included a fortune teller.

At a 1906 Montavilla party, for example, this was a major entertainment of the evening, where seven unmarried ladies along with nine men (marital status not given) were on the guest list published in The Oregon Daily Journal. Attesting to this now-forgotten romantic side of Halloween, The Oregonian of October 30, 1916 declared the holiday to be “the time of merry revelers, the eve when tradition declares love affairs are settled and fortunes told are sure to come true…”

A timely want ad in The Montavilla Times, Oct. 9, 1930

Divination was not the only entertainment at Halloween parties. There were also lots of games at both adult and children’s parties. The 500 card game was popular in the early 20th Century, but sometimes hosts were more inventive. Take the 1927 Montavilla party where guests were asked to come masked and dressed as ghosts. They were all seated in the living room and four judges were asked to guess the identity of each “ghost.” The last person to be recognized and unmasked received a prize.

Costumes, another theme going back to Celtic times, were popular at both adult and childrens’ parties. Sometimes costumes were even mandatory, as at a 1912 Michigan Society of Oregon party held in Grebel’s Hall at the corner of NE 80th Avenue and NE Stark Street. Anyone who came to that party sans costume was to be fined 10 cents.

Costumes— aside from the ever-popular ghost and witch— as today, varied according to current interests. Favorites in 1916, for example, were Theodore Roosevelt, President Wilson, Charlie Chaplin, suffragettes, college girls, sailors, and Mother Goose characters. Children’s costumes were less topical and more benign, as we see in the photo below.

Children’s Halloween Party at a Mount Tabor home
Source: Oregon Daily Journal, Nov. 7, 1920 (Historical Oregon Newspapers)

By the 1920s, Halloween became more of a community holiday. The old practice of trick-or-treating was revived, although now children might trade mischief for candy instead of the earlier custom of reciting a rhyme or singing a song in exchange for a treat. (Trick-or-treating was curtailed during World War II due to sugar rationing, but was revived after the war.)

Halloween dances were another popular form of communal celebration. In 1926, two of these were held in different Montavilla community halls (back when Montavilla had such things): one at Community Hall at SE 79th Avenue and SE Stark Street and another at the The Independent Order of Odd Fellows Hall at the southwest corner of NE 80th Avenue and NE Glisan Street.

In 1926, Montavillans could also choose to leave the neighborhood for the big Halloween celebration of the widening and lighting of Grand Avenue, newly made the widest business street in Portland. There they could find traditional orange and black decorations, Halloween window displays, live band music, and a Juvenile Merry-Maker’s Parade. The Montavilla Community Club received a special invitation to attend this lavish community event.

As you can see from these examples, Halloween already had many familiar aspects in the early 20th Century— costuming, motifs such as witches, ghosts and jack-o’-lanterns, trick-or-treating—but there was also a romantic side that has been lost and there were some really creative parties.

Did I mention the 1927 Montavilla party where the hosts recreated a forest in the basement, complete with lights twinkling in trees and foliage, where guests were treated to platters of doughnuts and cider? No? Well… I think those Montavillans knew how to have fun on Halloween. Don’t you?

If you want to know more about the fascinating history of Halloween⁠⁠— more than I could tell you here⁠— you can find Nicholas Rogers’ “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night” in the Multnomah County Library, available to read on your computer.


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