Halloween traces its history far back into the past. By the early twentieth century, the day had become a popular holiday in America. Usually spelled Hallowe’en at the time, a Tacoma Halloween looked very different than it does today.

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Early Halloween Tricks Not Treats in Tacoma

While clubs, churches and friends held quiet parties with games, dancing and food, the holiday was mainly seen as a night of pranks and vandalism in the early 1900s. People, especially young boys, spent the night terrorizing the neighborhood stealing gates, switching business signs, filling porches with trash, ringing doorbells, and soaping windows. “Tomorrow night is Hallowe’en, but don’t tell the youngsters” joked the Tacoma Daily News in 1905. A “sane Halloween,” a Tacoma Times cartoonist humorously noted in 1909, was only possible if families kept their sons tied up.

Tacoma Halloween
Halloween was still a rambunctious time when this postcard was made in the early twentieth century.

Unsurprisingly, some of the pranks went too far, causing panic and financial damage. A few boys threw a dummy over an electric wire at 13th Street and Pacific Avenue and many adults called authorities to report the death of an electrician. Near Glendale Street in 1903, a streetcar passed a woman standing by a group of barrels and rubbish. They then watched her fall onto the live wire behind them. The conductor hurried to her aid—only to find that it was a dummy. A group of boys hiding behind the barrels broke into laughter.  

Halloween indeed proved a particularly nervous night for street car and interurban companies. In 1900 the streetcar company had ten men watching the lines overnight but had to increase it five years later to twenty. Despite their best efforts to clean up rails that had been greased and remove rocks (especially on curves and hills), some of this vandalism resulted in accidents. In 1906, a crowded streetcar hit a rock and derailed, without injuries, at North 7th and I Streets. Motorman McDonald was injured by flying glass in 1902 when the Point Defiance car collided with a station house that had been pushed onto the track at the Cheyenne and 42nd Street stop. The downhill track had also been greased. Another conductor in 1907 got quicklime thrown in his eyes and was nearly blinded.

Tacoma Halloween
A suggestion for a “mystic dinner” for a Halloween party from the Tacoma Times, October 26, 1911. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

A Respectable Tacoma Halloween

Trick-or-treating for candy began in the 1920s, but parties for children and adults were more popular in the weeks near the holiday. Early parties often included fortune-telling games. There is a long history of fortune telling done by young women to playfully determine the identity or profession of their future husband (or if they would wed at all). This included leaping over candles or bowls of water, popping nuts in the fire, or even peeling apples. Later games focused on now-familiar Halloween symbols. In 1949 the Tacoma News Tribune published a collection of holiday children’s games which included the “cat scream,” “witch’s stocking” and “goblins’ relay race” as well as instructions on how to make a tunnel “chamber of horrors.”

The holiday was not particularly commercial in these early years. Pumpkins and food were the main sellers. Customers could find sweet cider, red apples, popcorn and chestnuts at the Pacific Fruit Company on Pacific Avenue in 1897 or buy penuche and fudge at Rhodes Brothers Department Store in 1906. National brand name candy had yet to become popular. Pumpkins were also a favorite purchase, both for pies and decorations. The arrival of pumpkins from the countryside to city markets was a cause for celebration. The Public Market at 11th and D Streets set a festive scene on Halloween night in 1909 when Japanese farmers decorated their rented stalls with jack-’o-lanterns.

Tacoma Halloween
A pumpkin pie filling ad from the October 22, 1953 issue of the Tacoma News Tribune. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Halloween in Later Years

Celebrations for the holiday were simpler during the Great Depression of the 1930s but took a special significance during World War II. South Tacoma USO held Halloween parties for soldiers while Mayor Harry Cain urged people to have a “patriotic” Halloween in 1942. And, added Chief of Police Tom Ross, “for victory’s sake, leave scrap piles alone” rather than vandalize them. Everyone was urged to stay home that year, lest enemy agents took advantage of the situation to commit sabotage. Their message seemed effective and it was celebrated as the most orderly Halloween in the city’s history.

The post-World War II baby boom increased the holiday’s focus on children. Schools frequently held Halloween parties and carnivals. The Lowell Elementary School PTA put on a large frolic in 1947, with a costume contest and fortune telling. They sold soft drinks and snacks at the event. Officials and teachers saw parties and structured activities as a way of keeping children out of mischief on the holiday. For example, in 1953 the police’s Youth Guidance Division held a city-wide high school dance at the Tacoma Armory. That same year the Downtown Tacoma Kiwanis Club PTA, Tacoma School District and Metropolitan Parks sponsored a Halloween art contest, organizing groups of students to paint shop windows with festive designs.

Tacoma Halloween
Children from the St. Ann’s Home orphanage celebrate at a Halloween party hosted by the Blue Barons Motorcycle Club in 1959. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library, Richards Studio D123599-1

Celebrating in Style

Stores increasingly catered to trick-or-treaters with Halloween costumes and decorations. Bakeries promoted doughnuts as ideal favors. Other bakery options were available for parties. People could pick up elaborately iced Van de Kamp’s cakes in Halloween colors or buy sugar cookies on sticks iced to look like jack-o’-lanterns at Manning’s. Or they could try baking a recipe from Gaynor Maddox’s “Eating Well For Less” column in the local newspaper. Popcorn balls and cookies were favorite Halloween treats.

Halloween remains a popular holiday today, enjoyed by many people. From trick-or-treating to parties or however you may choose to celebrate, here’s wishing you a Happy Halloween Tacoma!