Young Helen Meyer was participating in a growing trend when she wore this costume to a Topeka Halloween party in the 1920s. Vandalism was "out" and parties were "in" as new holiday traditions appeared around the country.
Kansas and the rest of America had struggled with Halloween vandalism during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when trickery was the hallmark of the holiday. Some common acts perpetrated by youngsters (particularly boys) involved moving wagons atop roofs, lifting gates off latches, and tipping over outhouses.
By the early 20th century, adults were sick and tired of the mischief. Church groups, high schools, and civic clubs began sponsoring parties and dances designed to keep kids off the streets. The Kansas town of Hiawatha came up with a creative solution in 1915; its Halloween Frolic featured a parade of costumed revelers with cash prizes for the best attire. The Frolic was so successful that it became an annual event and was widely copied throughout the United States.
Costume parties were common by the 1920s. Schools, social clubs, and fraternal lodges frequently held Halloween parties in the days leading up to the holiday. Halloween decorations--many of them featuring cats and witches--were regularly displayed in shops, restaurants, and workplaces.
It was during this time that Helen Meyer wore this Halloween costume, possibly made by her mother. The outfit's imagery and colors are still associated with the holiday, but its material is not: the dress and matching hat are made of crepe paper!
Paper costumes were part of an ingenious marketing campaign by the Dennison Crepe Paper Company of Framingham, Massachusetts. Dennison's Bogie Book, first published in 1909 and appearing annually after 1912, included directions on throwing the perfect party with crepe paper decorations, menus, and garments.
Dennison's promotions contributed to the popularity of inexpensive but festive paper party costumes throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Helen's paper costume was constructed over the framework of an old cotton dress. The simple hat is made of paper twisted into a cone.
Helen Meyer Lavell also donated a second crepe paper costume to the Kansas Museum of History. It resembles a red poppy, and she wore it in a local parade in the 1920s. Additionally, the museum's collections include a Dennison paper twister (for making streamers) and samples of early crepe paper.
Entry: Halloween Costume
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: October 2005
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.