Mischief, magic, candy and spirits — both ghouls and booze — have long been associated with the celebration of Halloween. In the 1920s, the Halloween party came into its own, wherein the populous would decorate their homes with a variety of low-priced plastic and paper goods made by companies located primarily in the United States and in Germany. Today, these celebratory autumnal trinkets are highly coveted
by vintage Halloween collectors due to their scarcity on the market and sentimental evocation.
Mark Ledenbach of Sacramento, California, known as “TheDeanofHalloween” is considered one of the world’s foremost experts in this realm. His personal collection of vintage Halloween goods totals around 5,000 pieces — a convoy he has been amassing since 1988. He operates halloweencollector.com and is the author of the tome “Vintage Halloween Collectibles” now in its third edition.
Unlike Christmas decorations, which people tended to keep from year to year, largely due to the holiday’s holy significance, Halloween decorations of the 1920s and ‘30s were viewed as more expendable.
“Halloween has never had a religious connotation in the United States,” Ledenbach said. “These decorations weren’t treasured. You’d go to a Five and Dime store, spend a couple of bucks, and have enough material to decorate your whole house. It was only the forward-thinking — even pack rats — who had the foresight to save it.”
Each manufacturer was known for its unique draws offered to consumers.
“The first and most prolific company — Dennison — began producing Halloween decorations in about 1909, and were known for smaller paper items,” Ledenbach said. “Beistle began producing Halloween stuff in about 1918, and their Golden Age was about from 1920 to 1935. Gibson’s output was more limited, and produced in much smaller quantities, but they made some very coveted paper items. And there was Whitney, that mainly made postcards, which I don’t collect,” he said.
Paper products would include die-cuts (decorative cut-outs often taped to walls), plates, place cards, invitations, tally cards used for keeping score, and table decorations.
“A lot of these items from the Golden Age came from Germany, and they were made in cottage industries, and today those German products, including Jack-O-Lantern, lanterns and heavily embossed die-cuts, are very, very coveted and hard to find,” Ledenbach said. “The values can range from as low as $35 all the way up to $2,000 to $4,000. Where you get into the really big money are these items that were only made for a season, late in that Golden Age period, and there’s just so few examples known, that when one comes up, a bidding war breaks out. You can buy a vintage Beistle item for maybe 100 bucks all the way up to $3,500. For Dennison, most of their products can be had for somewhere between $30 and maybe up to about $900 because most of their stuff was small paper items.”
Jennifer Fisher of Queen Creek, Arizona operates vintagehalloween.com, selling vintage and vintage-inspired products. She is also an avid collector.
“I decided to focus on several themes I enjoy — noisemakers, die-cuts, books and games. These items are fairly inexpensive for the most part in comparison to the more spendy papier mache lanterns and candy containers. While snubbed by some collectors, the plastic items can bring a pretty penny, too,” she noted. “For noisemakers, the big brands were J. Chein & Co, Kirchhoff, U.S. Metal Toy, and Bugle, but the Germans also produced some noisemakers that we imported over here. They range from paper to wood to metal — most of the U.S. ones are metal. Postcards were prominent in the early 1900s through ‘20s on. Popular publishers were John O. Winsch, Leubrie and Elkus, Whitney Made, and Raphael Tuck & Sons, and popular artists were Grace Gebbie Drayton, Jason Freixas, H.B. Griggs, Ellen H. Clapsaddle, Samuel L. Schmucker and Frances Brundage, among others.”
Fisher noted that Dennison’s “Bogie Books” which were party magazines featuring the company’s products, teamed with Halloween party ideas, are highly collectible.
“I think the main appeal is the nostalgia factor and the quality of the artistry,” Fisher reflected. “Modern Halloween just doesn’t have the timeless quality to it, and some of modern Halloween has devolved into haunt, Goth and gore type stuff. There’s a certain suspense and mystery to vintage images that isn't present so much in modern designs. Vintage Halloween, for the most part, isn’t cutesy and is a little scarier (but not gory) in style.”
Ledenbach, who doesn’t collect any Halloween memorabilia past the 1950s, noted potential collectors may find that contemporary Halloween decorations — spanning the 1960s-1980s — are easier on the pocketbook because they are not as rare.
“They are much, much cheaper and far more prevalent,” he noted. “Starting in 1977 when ‘Star Wars’ came out, collecting took off. That’s when that term, ‘Mint in the Box’ really took off ... I like the imagery from the 1920s; it’s more quirky, scary and they were really pitched towards adults, but you want to find what evokes the imagery you like,” Ledenbach said.
Collectors need to consider the importance of purchasing items based on rarity versus over-all condition.
“Even if something is rare, I won’t buy it if it’s not in collectible condition,”
Ledenbach said. “That means no tears in die-cuts or writing on them or tape stuck to them, no chips to canisters and candy dishes, etc. and complete sets.”
Ledenbach cautions how items made to look vintage can easily be reproductions or fantasy pieces.
“A reproduction is based on an old design and is made to look old, but it is not old. And then there are the more insidious pieces — fantasy pieces. These are pieces that have no vintage counterparts and never existed back in the day. They’re a new item, made to look old. Collectors who haven’t done their research will buy them,” he noted.
The collector decries the practice of purchasing any collectibles without first doing research.
“Develop contacts. Buy my book, buy the other books out there, and read as much as you can before you commit any dollars. Get to know the dealers,” he suggested. “Ruby Lane, eBay and icollect247.com are places to shop.”
Collectors looking for advice on whether or not to purchase an item, may contact Ledenbach through his website. He prioritizes responding to collectors who have first purchased the third edition of his book. He is available to offer guidance on pricing, questions to ask sellers, and which sellers are reputable.
“It’s a fun hobby, but it’s a difficult hobby. The market got so red hot and stayed red hot since the early ‘90s, that it’s gotten harder and harder to find quality pieces,” he said. “I’m willing to fly across the United States to pick up collectibles because that’s how hard they’ve gotten to find.”
Sara Jordan-Heintz works as the features writer at the Marshalltown, Iowa
Times-Republican newspaper. She serves as a freelance writer for Antique Trader magazine, Antique Doll Collector magazine and Antique Back Roads collector’s magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @SaraEliz90 or email her at: email@example.com.