Monday, October 10, 2011

Early Halloween and the Toledo Connection

[An adridged version of this article appeared in Bend of the River, October 2011.]

After Christmas, Halloween is the most popular American holiday. Certainly in terms of money spent, Halloween is a commercial success. The odd thing about Halloween is that it is a fairly recent part of our culture. Although it has a pedigree that starts in Europe a thousand years ago, Halloween was practically unknown in America until the 1880s. About that time, greeting card makers and toy manufacturers began to merchandise the faint wisps of a tradition brought by Irish immigrants and turned Halloween from a day of pranks to a multibillion dollar industry.

One of the very first companies to cash in on, and thus create modern Halloween, was located in Toledo. On May 13, 1902 the Toledo Metal Sign Company patented metal jack-o-lanterns designed to fit on poles. Around the turn of the last century, the jack-o-lantern was often carried high on a pole in children’s parades. But carved pumpkins are heavy and spoil quickly, so Toledo Metal Sign offered a manufactured pumpkin, made of tin, and hand painted orange, complete with a jaunty handlebar moustache, aping the facial decorations of their time.

Toledo was a center of tin jack-o-lantern creativity. In 1902 and 1903, several patents for these decorations were granted to a Toledo inventor named John J. Duket. Duket, who at the time lived on Adams Street near the corner of 14th Street, held several patents for metal pumpkins and masks. Some were meant to be elevated on poles; at least one, in the shape of Indian chief, was designed to be worn like a hat and included a lighted candle, located directly above the well-oiled hairline!

Another Toledoan who invented a Halloween parade lantern was Carlos Wolfert. Wolfert, who was 26 the year he got his pumpkin patent, was a “heating engineer” by profession, and was a newlywed. By 1910, he was living alone in a Jefferson Avenue boarding house. What happened? The records don’t say. The records also don’t say whether he had any connection with the Toledo Metal Sign Company.

Toledo’s jack-o-lantern connection is real but hard to document, not unlike the history of Halloween itself. But keep in mind that Halloween, while largely a concoction of the twentieth century, was born, in part, in the rough and tumble world of early twentieth century Toledo. Toledo can’t claim to be the birthplace of the jack-o-lantern, but it is one of the decoration’s incubators.

[Illustration appears in Halloween in America : a collector's guide with prices / by Stuart Schneider (1995).]