Chester Martin Remembers Halloween In The 1940s

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

To be honest, Halloween has not changed very much through the years. It has the exact same elements today as back then, only slicked up a bit and commercialized more. When I was working for the local poster companies back in the 1960's and '70's they saw little or no "bump" in their sales for the one day of Halloween, so ignored it for having no commercial potential; bigger events lay ahead on the calendar, like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I wrote last year how I remember Halloween BEFORE the "Trick or Treat" craze arose. We had never heard of such a thing here in Chattanooga until around 1946 when an elderly couple from Chicago moved into our neighborhood: George and Elsie Magnin. They had no children so "adopted" all the kids in our neighborhood as their own. They started telling us about kids back up north who played this game called "Trick or Treat" at Halloween every year. They were amazed that we did not have that custom down here in Tennessee. But we hadn't, and  just stared blankly at each other because it rang no bells and we were mystified as to how it was done. How could anyone be so brazen as to knock on a stranger's door (masked and in costume), and demand treats, in order to forestall some kind of mischief?! We simply did not "get" the concept.

But that was soon to change. I think it DID change within about a year or two because I remember trying it soon. My friend and I prided ourselves in having collected a nice amount of stuff in our immediate neighborhood, and were now down on Belvoir Avenue several blocks away from home, never thinking about how late it was getting. We knocked on a door - which was NOT going to be our last one, and  a very irate lady answered who scolded us for being out so late. We took our "loot", PLUS her hint, and her house WAS our last one for that evening! That incident would have been in about 1947 or '48, and Trick or Treating has been around ever since  - and accepted. The new custom spread rapidly and has become a standard part of our American culture.

The main "stuff" that Halloween is made of has changed very little through the years, as I said: the ghosts, goblins, graveyards, witches demons, etc., were always the main part of it, though Hollywood and big-city advertising agencies have built it almost into a sub-culture of its own which fits in nicely with the vampire and "undead" culture that is currently being promoted. There are now "Halloween shops" many places which remain open all year. "Dr. Shock and Dingbat" brought a trace of Halloween to our TV screens every Saturday night for a number of years - on Channel 9. A neighborhood boy - "Krish" Connally, a friend of my daughter's - actually made himself up to look exactly like Dr. Shock, and his mom made him a very convincing copy of the Dingbat puppet - even down to the red high-quarter tennis shoes!

Hayrides were popular back in the 1940's, but had no real connection with Halloween; they were simply autumn events which the younger set enjoyed. They basically happened at night - out in the country - and were mainly just an excuse to be with your girlfriend - and a group of your other friends - for a couple of hours. The only "genuine" hayride I ever went on was in the Sequatchie Valley, where the hay wagon was pulled by a tractor and not a horse or mule and there were no city buildings or traffic to contend with. Corn mazes were not a "hot" item at that time; in fact I do not even remember one until within the last 10 or 15 years. They seem to appeal more to families than to couples or children, per se, although I could be wrong.

Schools always celebrated Halloween by having parties in the individual classrooms, not the entire school altogether. Every room at my schools had two "room mothers" who planned all the superfluous entertainment for the kids, such as Halloween and Christmas parties. My mom served as a room mother one year while I was in either 5th or 6th grade at Sunnyside School. She was really popular with the kids. (Y.L. Coker's mom was the other room mother that year, if I remember correctly). Parties usually consisted of the same stuff you have today - cake with orange icing, Halloween candies such as the traditional candy corn, and there was always a cup of ice cream containing vanilla ice cream at one side with orange sherbet on the other. I doubt that that has changed!

Anna B. Lacey Elementary School, where I started, had a "fair" early in the fall every year - well before Halloween. It was a daytime event where all students were allowed to bring some "special" personal item from home and show it on their desk. People wandered into and out of the room all day to admire all the treasures. There was no obligation to actually take something from home - no grading for doing it - and was purely voluntary.  But at this moment I can't remember anything outstanding that I either took or saw during those four years I spent at Lacey . Mrs. Stroud, the school principal, seemed to like those fairs and so they went on for many years. Anna B. Lacey School also had an evening event that the fathers could attend. It was held closer to Halloween and included a spook house, some very innocuous fortune telling, apple-bobbing, a costume contest, etc. It was great fun!

Halloween was always supposed to be a time when weird things happened, and so there was always an element of society who did want to do bad stuff. Teen-aged boys, mainly, and they were capable of doing some pretty rough things. So everyone waited for morning light the next day to see what kind of devilment had been done overnight. Soaping of car windows and fences was one of the more popular "mild" things - just like today. Blocking roads with logs, and sometimes setting fires were worse. News reports on the radio would tell about something really serious happening in Chicago or Kansas City, but much less here locally. Once, though, when I was about 12 or 13, a group of us was on Belvoir Avenue near Anderson Avenue (today's South Terrace). A red unmarked coupe suddenly came racing toward us on Belvoir from Brainerd Road. A frantic little man - a plain-clothes detective, we later figured - with a very serious expression on his face stopped and shouted out to us if we had "seen anything strange". We all truthfully said no, and he immediately sped off again going east on Anderson Avenue toward OLPH and Anna B. Lacey schools. We never heard anything more about that incident, but it kinda scared us, as it was very unusual back then to be stopped by any people of authority. Sometimes I find myself wondering what actually DID happen that night, for in those days it was extremely rare to see a policeman of any sort outside of the downtown area.

Most Halloweens in town were very calm and peaceful. I remember how for many years Market Street from about 3rd St. to 9th St. (now MLK Blvd.) would be roped off just for the spooks of all ages to have their fun. Market Street was completely straight in those days, so made a very nice arena for events such as this. And while I was at Kirkman HS, the art departments from City and Central HS would be allowed to paint Halloween scenery on the major department store windows downtown: Miller's and Loveman's, and maybe a few other smaller stores as well. All day long there would be a mob of excited young artists - some at sidewalk level, and others on ladders, wearing old clothes, bumping into each other while painting, and then, with dark approaching, TA-DAH, the great masterpieces would be revealed for all to see. Those artists did some pretty fantastic work, too, especially as prizes were to be awarded. The finished artwork would be pictured in the Chattanooga Times the next morning, and the winners announced.

In my earliest years, Halloween and Thanksgiving were so far apart on the calendar that you could not see any connection, but the big-city marketers kept looking for ways to integrate Halloween  more centrally into our culture and  they have finally done it:  by lumping it in with Thanksgiving and Christmas, and calling it, "the beginning of the American Holiday Season". Hollywood has more than done its part in that transition, too, because through their many films about Halloween they have awakened new markets (as in Europe, especially), where Halloween was unheard of only a few years ago. When our young friend, "Sisi" Zancada came over from Spain in 1995 she had only barely heard of our American style Halloween and was very curious about it.

Halloween is also playing  a very positive role this very year - in California - where the little kids are shown having wonderful times, decked out in their frequently expensive costumes, and enjoying full-fledged Halloween parties from the backs of their parents' cars or vans - similar to tailgate parties at football games. In the background you see (in the news-clips on TV) the remains of their burned-out and totally devastated neighborhoods, but the kids I saw were completely focused on HALLOWEEN, and had temporarily, at least, forgotten all the problems and traumas of their burned out and ruined real world.

* * *

Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.
Chester Martin
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