Vintage Halloween Postcards

Halloween 2004, October Holiday 2004

These greetings once filled mailboxes every October. Today, each one is a collector's prize.

"Owls a-hooting in the tree, pumpkins making faces mean, and lots of things that you can't see tell us that it's Hallowe'en."

In the first decades of the twentieth century, postcards did, too. Rhymes like this one, accompanying cheery printed images of solemn owls or red-cheeked apple bobbers, arrived in the mailbox with "Hallowe'en" greetings. That apostrophe has disappeared (the holiday was once All Hallows' Eve, or "even," abbreviated to "e'en"), but our fondness for the postcards -- sweetly innocent remnants of a pre-email era -- is still going strong. In fact, with all those pumpkins, moons, and black cats, Halloween penny postcards have become increasingly sought after. But you definitely won't find them for pennies.

This is not just because they're wonderfully illustrated or have the occasional pullout or lift tab-other antique postcards have them, too. Nor is it simply because they have superb color lithography. No, Halloween cards are especially collectible because, though once as popular as Christmas cards, they are now quite rare. And, as with things like Beatles dolls and pink diamonds, rarity makes them desirable. Collector competition is fierce. Some want witch cards only; others want depictions of the intriguing myth that if, on Halloween night, a girl holds a lighted candle and stands before a mirror, she will glimpse the reflection of her beloved-to-be.

The adorable Halloween images created by Ellen Clapsaddle, a prolific, pre-World War I American greeting-card illustrator, account for plenty of heated bidding at auctions and online auction sites. Her name -- conveniently for collectors -- is printed on much of her work. And some enthusiasts vie with one another to assemble the complete Halloween series published by the English firm Tuck (whose output can be recognized by the royal warrant: "Art Publishers to their Majesties the King and Queen"). The scarily charming postcards-featuring watermelon automobiles or onion-shaped ghosts- were printed in limited editions in England and Germany but were wholly American in spirit. That's because, though we imported Halloween from ancient Rome and the British Isles, it has become a truly American holiday. Nobody loves it like we do.

As is true with all ephemera, the pricier items (whether inscribed or not) will be free of dog-ears, folds, wrinkles, and chips. Clapsaddle cards that are in good condition can start at $175, and some Halloween greetings have changed hands for thousands. Compare these prices with the going rate for collectible vintage tourist cards -- Niagara Falls cards, for example, bring $3 to $25 -- and you can see how desirable the Halloween cards are. This is all good news for you, since it means that if you come across that rare album at a tag sale that just happens to have a Halloween card or two, you'll be able to afford all the gummy worms and apples that you like. Or, if you prefer, some candles and a looking glass.


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