Pumpkin Patch to Jack-o’-lantern: A Halloween History Lesson

Pumpkin decor and jack-o’-lanterns have become ubiquitous symbols of Halloween, but how did a simple squash become a quintessential part of this American holiday? Cindy Ott explores this and other surprising stories about the pumpkin’s rise to icon status in her book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. Beginning with the myth of the first Thanksgiving, she shows how Americans have used the pumpkin to fulfill their desire to maintain connections to nature and to the family farm of lore, and how small farms and rural communities have been revitalized in the process. In the following excerpt from the book, Ott delves into the origins and evolution of Halloween pumpkin traditions.

When most Americans think about communing with nature, they probably do not think about celebrating Halloween, but its festivities say a lot about how Americans imagine the natural world around them. While adult costume parties and parades still define the holiday, they share the night with children walking from door to door in costumes, yelling ‘Trick or Treat!’ to be rewarded with candies from their neighbors. The tradition started in the 1920s and became more popular with post-World-War II suburbanization and the baby boom. Pumpkins ranging from a single jack o’ lantern to more elaborate displays greet neighborhood children. Some homes metamorphose into haunted-house extravaganzas, with cobwebs stretched across bushes, faux gravestones planted in yards, paper skeletons hanging from porch rafters, and glowing jack-o’-lanterns perched on doorsteps. Others highlight a country feel, with hay bales, pumpkin-headed scarecrows, cornstalks, folk-art style wooden pumpkin cutouts, and fresh pumpkins piled decoratively near potted mums.

Glaser, William C.C., lithographer. In Florence Bourgeois’ “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Grower.” Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1937.

Although the themes of death, the supernatural, and wild nature still figure prominently at Halloween, their representative ghouls are tame and benevolent by historical standards. Jack-o’-lanterns and other Halloween creatures have become childlike cartoons such as Casper the Friendly Ghost or, in other cases, nurturing, New Age caregivers. Greeting cards, toys, and books often portray the jack-o’-lantern with big round eyes and a goofy grin rather than a threatening grimace. And perhaps most significantly, instead of being a two-legged beast, the new jack-o’-lantern has, as one poet put it, nothing underneath — it is just a head. Amputating and disembodying this symbol of wild, primitive nature nullifies its danger. Without a body to propel it, the jack-o’-lantern is powerless to act on its own will and wreak havoc.

Replacing the volatile and mischievous creature depicted in early twentieth-century Halloween memorabilia is a comforting and compassionate guardian spirit. A 1999 poem offers a glimpse of this new jack-o’-lantern personality:

Pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin bright
When my ‘Tricks or Treats’ are said,
Will you light me to my bed,
King old father pumpkin head?

The transformation owes much to the rising popular beliefs in the healing power of nature. Pumpkin Light, a 1993 children’s book, is one of many tales about a pumpkin with magical powers. In the story, a jack-o’-lantern saves a boy named Angus, who was born on a day when ‘the sun rose like a shining pumpkin.’ After Angus disobeys his parents, a mean scarecrow turns the boy into a dog, and the only way he can be transformed back is for someone to carve a magic pumpkin into a jack-o’-lantern. The tale’s narrator states about Angus, ‘Sometimes he thought he could almost hear sounds from deep within the pumpkin. As if messages from the sun and the moon somehow entered through the pumpkin’s stem to rest among the silent seeds.’ At the end of the story, Angus’s mother carves the pumpkin and thereby returns the boy to his rightful form. In this fairy tale, the jack-o’-lantern offers salvation and restores the human spirit with the power of its magical forces.

The affiliation of pumpkins with children, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, remains as powerful as ever, because the two mutually reinforce the themes of natural exuberance and goodness. Photographs of a small child sitting on or holding a pumpkin in a pumpkin patch or dressed up as a pumpkin in a Halloween costume are ubiquitous in calendars, office cubicles, studio portraits and just about every American newspaper in the month of October. Children’s stories meld one with the other. For example, ‘The Ugly Pumpkin’ (1970) mimics the classic ugly duckling tale but substitutes a ‘lopsided runt’ pumpkin that becomes a handsome jack-o’-lantern. Peter Pumpkin (1963) is a coming-of-age story about a pumpkin learning how to be a man. ‘Pumpkin’ is a common term of endearment for children. A 1995 Libby’s advertisement for canned pumpkin includes a photograph of two cheerful toddlers sitting inside a giant pumpkin, suggesting that the contents of the can are as sweet and wonderful as two rosy-cheeked babies. Both the pumpkin and the babies exude happiness and well-being.

Cindy Ott is associate professor of American studies at Saint Louis University. Learn more about Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon by visiting the book’s website.

“A fascinating look at how a simple squash became mythic…a captivating book about an iconic American symbol.” —Marilyn Dahl, Shelf Awareness

“From Halloween to Thanksgiving; decorative dwarfs to 1000-pound monsters; jack-o-lanterns to pies, the pumpkin has been central to American understandings of nature, agrarian pasts, and ‘traditional’ values.  An extraordinary scholar and storyteller, Cindy Ott tracks the culture that altered the very nature of the pumpkin—and in do so, tells us a revealing story about ourselves.   It’s a new optic on the relation between food, environment, cultures and markets, and is not to be missed.” —Philip J. Deloria, author of Playing Indian and Indians in Unexpected Places

NBC Bay Area recently interviewed Ott: The Pumpkin Spice Story: From “Food of Last Resort” to Fall Flavor King