Everyone knows that Halloween is more than witches on brooms, wailing ghosts, and black cats. It’s also greeting cards and masks and costumes and candy corn and noise makers and all the decorations that make the holiday second only to Christmas in terms of general popularity and merchandising. And that means it has given rise to some of the more active categories of holiday collectibles, one of which is the jack-o’-lantern.
There are several stories regarding the derivation of the term, but the most colorful one involves an Irish folklore character named Stingy Jack, who tricked the Devil, not once (to save money), but twice, eliciting a promise from the Devil that when Jack died, the Devil would not take his soul. (Jack was looking ahead as he led a rather unsavory life due to his affinity for “the drink”.)
Of course, all men die, and when Stingy Jack finally passed, he discovered that his disreputable past prevented him from entering Heaven, where St. Peter turned him away at the Pearly Gates. So, Jack, figuring he belonged in Hell, went to the Devil, who remembered his promise and refused Jack entry. Condemned to wander earth for eternity, Jack placed a glowing ember given him by the Devil into a carved-out turnip which Jack forever carries to light his way, earning him the sobriquet Jack-of-the-Lantern – jack-o’-lantern!
Carrying a lit turnip or rutabaga to scare off evil spirits eventually became part of the All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) tradition, and when Irish immigrants settled in America, they brought the custom with them. Happily for everyone, the New World winter squashes called pumpkins were not only much larger than the turnips and other vegetables that had been used, but they were easier to carve, and much more colorful.
Pumpkins today are grown around the globe for a variety of purposes – China and India alone account for over 45% of total production – but it is at Halloween that the pumpkin shines. In windows, on tables and doorsteps, the jack-o’-lantern’s flickering grin greets holiday revelers and trick-or-treaters. And the brightly-hued orbs dominate many a Halloween festival where communities vie to set Guinness-Book records.
Of course, no one is going to collect real jack-o’-lanterns, but representations made of papier-mâché, card stock, tin, ceramic, and plastic have long been manufactured for the holiday market. The pre-World War II era is especially popular among collectors for the imaginative graphics on both imported and domestic products. Then, as now, most items – candy containers for toting around while trick-or-treating, cardboard and paper lanterns that could be hung in trees, party invitations and cutout decorations – were considered disposable, and it’s rare to find specimens in decent condition, if at all.
As a result, interest in Halloween collectibles of all periods has increased in tandem with prices, which have been steadily rising since the 1990s. For example, a plastic Kokomold jack-o’-lantern candy container, with its original handle, recently sold online for $430; an early 1930s Beistle cardboard lantern fetched $1378; and a small, pressed-cardboard candy container with a wire handle stimulated a bidding war, and closed at $5600!
Unfortunately, the combination of high prices and high demand for vintage Halloween has stimulated the production of fakes, and compounding the problem is that companies such as Beistle have been reissuing some of their original vintage pieces.
So, do your research if you intend to engage in this collectible: it’s one thing to take a chance on a piece at a yard or estate sale where the asking price may be just a few dollars; it’s quite another to pay hundreds or even thousands for a specimen online that you know little about.
Want to know more about this collectible? Check out the resources listed below, and
Halloween in America: A Collector’s Guide with Prices, by Stuart Schneider
Vintage Halloween Collectibles (Third Edition), by Mark B. Ledenbach
Halloween Collector (HalloweenCollector.com) – Mark Ledenbach’s (“The Dean of Halloween”) site is one of the most helpful on the internet. Check out the section titled “Fakes, etc.”.
Halloween: Origins & Traditions (History.com) – A comprehensive history of the holiday.
Pumpkin Nook: History of the Jack O’Lantern and Stingy Jack (Pumpkinnook.com) – Everything about the pumpkin, from recipes and tips for growing, to history and news.
These People Spend Thousands of Dollars on Vintage Halloween Decorations (Vice.com) – No explanation necessary.