As it were

Halloween was more slippery in 1912


In 2012, Columbus celebrates its bicentennial with a host of events that began early in the year and will last at least until First Night ushers in 2013. More than a few people think some of the events and programs of the bicentennial year will last considerably longer.

Such was not the case, however, when Columbus celebrated its 100th birthday in 1912. Most of the major events of the centennial year centered around a week of celebration coinciding with the Ohio State Fair in the late summer of 1912. After all of those programs were over, the centennial was over as well.

This of course meant that residents of Columbus began to look for other ways to amuse themselves in the fall of 1912. As one example, the race for the presidency was like few in recent memory. Theodore Roosevelt left the presidency to his hand-picked successor – William Howard Taft of Ohio – and went off to hunt elephants in Africa.
Taft thought he had done quite well in his first term and desired a second chance. Returning to America, Roosevelt disagreed and sought the presidency again. Denied the Republican nomination, Roosevelt became the candidate of the Progressive Party.

Opposing them both was a Democrat. Woodrow Wilson had been president of Princeton University as late as 1910. Now he was governor of New Jersey and seeking to become president.

In addition in Ohio, there were a number of issues on the ballot. Most interesting was the question required to be asked every 20 years to Ohioans – “Do you desire a Constitutional Convention?”

In 1912, at the high tide of the Progressive Movement, many people did. Some wanted to give the vote to women. Others wanted to ban alcohol forever. And yet others wanted to see Home Rule for Ohio’s cities. And many people did not want to see any of these things.
In the end Woodrow Wilson won the presidency and Ohio would have a Constitutional Convention that would bring changes that are with us still.

But for many people, there were other holidays as important as Election Day. Among them was Halloween.

Halloween has changed a lot since 1912. Today in Columbus, one can find shops the size of an average department store selling costumes and other accoutrement. Many people – adults as well as children – purchase these costumes and wear them to events as diverse as Beggars Night for the kids and parties for the adults.
Probably the biggest of the latter is Highball Halloween. Now in its fifth year, the event blocks off the streets in the Short North and hosts a small intimate group of 25,000 people or so.

A person from 1912 transported to our city today would be astonished by how commercial Halloween has become. But that person would also probably be comforted to know that some things never change all that much.

Then as now children went out on Beggars Night seeking candy and other comestibles by going to door and saying, “trick or treat.”
Many younger adults went to costume parties at clubs and private homes and enjoyed themselves. Columbus had a number of shops that rented costumes of a traditional sort like witches and elves or of contemporary interest like popular movie stars. And just as people do today at Highball Halloween in the Short North, hundreds of people in 1912 would come downtown – some in costume – some not – to celebrate Halloween in Columbus.

Probably the biggest difference between Columbus then and now at Halloween has been the decline in pranks by the adolescent set. Today we might still see an occasional soaped window or tree filled with toilet tissue. But one hundred years ago, pranksters – largely young men between the ages of 15 and 25 – took their disruptive tasks more seriously.

A common practice in 1912 to anyone who was either not home or who refused a “treat” was to see the “trick” of the front gate of their house hanging in a nearby tree.

Other “tricks” included knocking over outhouses, turning animals loose from their pens and painting a slogan on the side of a house or barn. One of the more elaborate “tricks” involved the “soaping” of streetcar tracks.

Columbus had developed an electrified streetcar system in the 1890s. Receiving power from wires on an elaborate system of metal arches, the streetcars moved resolutely up steep grades to reach places like the Hilltop, the University District or North Linden. They did that unless young pranksters ran a bar of soap along the tracks for several yards on a steep grade. The streetcar would sit at that spot and literally spin its wheels for a while.

Reminding young Columbus that interfering with a streetcar was a felony, the streetcar company said it would place plain clothed detectives along its routes to deter “soaping “ and other vandalism.

Apparently it worked, No one was arrested and presumably the streetcars ran on schedule – at least most of the time – taking “trick or treaters” home to look at their treasures.

Local historian Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek.