For the last few years, I’ve been collecting old photos of vintage Halloween costumes—early to mid-19th century, mainly. Despite their earnestness, there’s something deeply unsettling about many of them. The homespun approach only seems to amplify their eerieness, and I find that delightful. That’s not something modern costumes have really been able to replicate.
Since it’s 2019’s spooky month, I sorted through my collection and assembled my favorite for a gallery. None of the photos below are mine. Most are old enough they should be in the public domain. If something looks or seems amiss, please let me know, and I’ll happily correct it. You can click on any photo to view it larger.
A shiner in a skeleton costume on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
A mummy-like figure standing in front of a barn, 1919.
Honestly, can you blame the kid’s reaction?
An assortment of costumes from a dead-eyed clown to a creepy policeman.
The middle figure blending into the background is rather unsettling.
A figure seated among a collection of enormous pumpkins.
This is either a baby or an old lady who liked drinking from bottles.
These costumes are a bit fancier than many in this collection, note the early Mickey Mouse graphic.
Pretty sure that’s not a young girl beneath that expressionless mask.
At least I think it’s a gnome.
Not sure with either of these are supposed to be, any guesses?
Using the bags is an interesting way to hide your upper body—bet this was fairly effective at night.
Not sure if the guy in the back is in costume or just has a really epic mustache.
The cowboy is fine—bit dead-eyed, but fine. Those things in the front, however…
Sometimes a simple costume works, and the results can be as terrifying as anything complex.
It’s a clown. I particularly like the exhausted slump, combined with that manic grin.
I don’t know what is this, but I do not like it.
The eyes behind the mask are what really makes this image.
Whatever this is, I’m pretty sure it’s not a gnome.
I believe this is the youngest photo in this collection, dating from the mid-1960s.
The parent in the tribal-mask-thing is almost quaint compared to the black-eyed figured in the background.
You know how people don’t like clowns? This is why.
Examples of decorations and a person in a strange ghostly costume.
If you enjoy these images and want to see more, I highly recommend checking out Ossian Brown’s book Haunted Air. It collects some of these and many more anonymous Halloween photographs from 1875–1955. It’s weird and wonderful and perfect for October.