Halloween is now the most popular commercial holiday after Christmas. The National Retail Federation predicts sales this year will be 10% higher than last year, with total spending topping $5 billion on just candy, decorations and greeting cards.
As a holiday, Halloween came into its own in the early 1920s, when parties were primarily for adults. Guests would play mah-jongg, bridge or other games on the occasion, and winners would receive prizes to take home, such as candy boxes, lanterns or noisemakers -- which, combined with the festive paper die-cut decorations, make for highly collectible items today.
(The practice of going door-to-door for candy actually didn't come into vogue until after World War II, when Halloween morphed into a holiday mainly for children.)
The zenith of Halloween items both in variety and design was from about 1919 until 1935, when American discounters such as Woolworth's and Kresge encouraged expert German artisans to craft unique items for the growing American holiday market.
Many of the lanterns, candy containers and figures from this period were made in homes or very small firms, from either a fixed design or a mold, and all were hand-decorated. The overall quantity of items produced was quite small, resulting in a limited supply of these spooky treasures today.
What to Look For
The hierarchy of Halloween collectible imagery has always been fairly logical: The pumpkin, or its anthropomorphic incarnation, the jack-o'-lantern, is the most common symbol of the holiday. Black cats, skeletons and owls appear frequently, followed by witches, bats and, more rarely, devils.
For collectibles, within any given genre, this means devil imagery is the hardest to find -- and often it commands the highest prices.
There were two premier American die-cut and party-supply manufacturers in the prime production era: the Beistle Company of Shippensburg, Pa., and the Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Mass., both of which are still in business today.
Collectors can look for a mark on some of the better die-cuts from about 1940 through the early 1950s, such as "H.E. Luhrs," which was used exclusively by the Beistle Company. Beistle is known for its very detailed die-cuts, lanterns and table decorations.
Tin noisemakers of an astonishing variety were also made by a number of American firms. Among the most sought-after are those produced by Bugle Toy. Earlier tin noisemakers will have sculpted wooden handles and sell for around $100, while later items from the 1950s on have plastic handles and go for about $10.
Other notable manufacturers include Chein, Kirchhof and T. Cohn, who made such items as tambourines, clangers and rattlers.
What's Hot and What's Not
Halloween decorations were traditionally used once for a party and then discarded. There are numerous other reasons why there is a true scarcity of quality or near-mint condition vintage Halloween memorabilia:
- Lanterns were illuminated by a flame that either consumed them or made them undesirable for later display.
- Die-cuts were often affixed to walls with liberal use of tape, which through the years causes damage.
- Games were often designed so that during play, pieces would be torn from backing or cut away.
Still, Beistle items are probably the hottest collectibles out there right now.
Beistle pieces from the '20s and '30s were well-executed and not widely produced, so few of those early items survived in mint condition. As a result, Beistle party sets and table-top decorations have gone up in value tremendously -- and they were high to begin with.
For instance, a 1940s black cat die-cut with 3-D effect (about 21" by 12"), originally used as a table centerpiece, runs around $175. A lantern with four-sided images of an arched black cat with a jack-o'-lantern, a devil with a pitchfork, a witch with a crescent moon and a jack-o'-lantern-headed scarecrow (9.5" x 6.25") is about $225; a wall hanging die-cut devil-headed black cat (12.5" x 8.5") will cost $115.
Dennison items are not too far behind. They are more plentiful, but they still command significant prices, especially the more unusual German die-cut decorations. Interest in vintage German candy containers (made form composition) was pretty slow for a couple of years, but it has picked up recently and prices have solidified. A candy container depicting a naval jack-o'-lantern-headed officer riding a pear (3.25" x 2.5") and an infantry jack-o-lantern officer riding an apple (3" x 2"), for example, sell for about $700 each.
Mark Ledenbach, the king of Halloween collectibles, believes hard plastic candy containers are not that rare and yet bring high prices -- between $200 to $300.
Tin items are cooling down, except for the tin tambourines and parade lanterns made in Toledo, Ohio, in 1900 to 1905 -- those lanterns have really become hot. Expect to pay about $750 to $1,000 for one of these treasures.
Don't Be Haunted by Reproductions
When Halloween items first became very collectible in the 1980s, reproductions quickly followed. To satisfy buyers who wanted vintage and nostalgic items, numerous companies added lines of vintage-look Halloween items. These are usually not made to fool collectors; rather, they are designed for those who want vintage-looking Halloween decorations for the holiday.
Along with this type of item, however, there are also reproductions and fantasy items made and marketed as old originals. A knowledgeable collector can usually tell the difference, but those new to the game should speak to a dealer or check a reference book such as Ledenbach's
Vintage Halloween Collectibles: An Identification & Price Guide
Finally, as Ledenbach cautions, collectors should be skeptical of any items marked as from East Germany. Many of these allegedly vintage German lanterns, candy containers and figural horns were produced recently and are essentially decorative items only, with no collectible value.
Also, exercise the same caution with dealers claiming to have brought back vintage items from recent trips to Germany -- with the scarcity of authentic Halloween collectibles, chances are they're not the real deal.
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Malcolm Katt is the owner of Millwood Gallery in Millwood, N.Y., which specializes in militaria collectibles. He also co-authored the second edition of
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