Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Jack o' Lanterns

The jack o' lantern is one of the many symbols associated with Halloween. What is more, unlike ghosts, witches, black cats, and so on, it would seem to be exclusively associated with that holiday. Precisely how pumpkins carved with faces became linked to Halloween is unclear. Many books and web sites have detailed explanations of how jack o' lanterns became part of the celebration of Halloween, but most of these books and websites provide very little in the way of documentation for these explanations. Regardless, the jack o' lantern would be firmly associated with Halloween by the 19th Century.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase "jack o' lantern" originated in the 17th Century. It was in 1663 that the phrase "Jack with the lantern" first appeared in print. Its original meaning was that of "a man carrying a lantern; a night watchman." In a few years "Jack with the lantern" would evolve into the more familiar "jack o' lantern". Both "Jack with the lantern" and "jack o' lantern" are a number of phrases in English in which "jack" was used of any man in general. Similar phrases are "jack of all trades" for someone with a wide number of skills or "Jack the lad" for a boisterous, overconfident, young man.

Also according to the Oxford English Dictionary, by 1673 the phrase "jack o' lantern" was being applied to the phenomenon of the ignis fatuus, more commonly called in English "will o' the wisp", as well. The will o' the wisp is a light that sometimes appears over marshy land, created by the combustion of gas from decomposing organic matter.

The phrase "jack o' lantern" would not be applied to carved vegetables into which candles are placed until the 19th Century. One of the earliest possible uses in print (perhaps the earliest use ) of "jack o' lantern" for a carved vegetable with a candle inside it appears in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's review of Charles Maturin's play Bertram in 1817, "The characters in this act frisk about, here, there, and everywhere, as teasingly as Jack o' Lantern lights which mischievous boys, from across a narrow street, throw with a looking-glass on the faces of their opposite neighbours." Unfortunately, while it seems like that Coleridge is referring to carved vegetables into which candles are placed, it is not entirely clear. He could easily have been referring to something else.

Fortunately William Holloway's A General Dictionary of Provincialisms (published in 1838) would be very clear on the topic. Under the entry for "jack in the lantern" he writes, "In Hampshire, boys, of a dark night, get a large turnip and scooping out the inside, make two holes in it to resemble eyes and one for a mouth, when they place a lighted candle within side, and put it on a wall or a post so that it may appear like the head of a man. The chief end (and that a very bad one) is to take some younger boy than the rest, and who is not in the secret, to show it to him, with a view to frighten him." That carved vegetables were already in use in the United States and referred to as "jack o' lanterns" by the mid-19th Century is made clear by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel House of the Seven Gables (published in 1851). In the book character suggests to another with regards to the Great Carbuncle, "Hide it under that cloak, say'st thou? Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a Jack o'lanthern!"

While it seems clear that the phrase "jack o' lantern" was being used of vegetables carved for use as lanterns by the 19th Century, it is unclear where or when the practice of doing so originated. Despite the many claims made for Ireland, the earliest references to these vegetable lanterns come from England and Scotland. In 1756 The British, Roman, and Saxon antiquities and folklore of Worcestershire by antiquarian Jabez Allies makes reference to turnip lanterns called "Hoberdy’s Lantern" he remembered from his youth.  He wrote, "In my juvenile days I remember to have seen peasant boys make, what they called a “Hoberdy’s Lantern,” by hollowing out a turnip, and cutting eyes, nose, and mouth therein, in the true moon-like style ; and having lighted it up by inserting the stump of a candle, they used to place it upon a hedge to frighten unwary travellers in the night." Such turnip lanterns were also being made in North America. In the November 21 issue of The Pennsylvania Packet, there is a reference to a boy's "turnip lanthorn...with a little bit of candle in it."

Of course, so far none of the sources refer to turnip lanterns or jack o' lanterns as being associated with Halloween. What could be the earliest reference to turnip lanterns and Halloween occurs in the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language by Scottish antiquarian John Jamieson (published in 1808). In the dictionary there is an entry for "Candle and Castock". The entry reads "a  large turnip, from which the top is sliced off that it may be hollowed out till the rind become transparent : a candle is then put into it, the top being restored by way of lid or cover. The light shows in a frightful manner the face formed with blacking on the outside, S. Hence the rhyme of children: 'Halloween, a night at e'en, A candle in a castock'. These, being sometimes placed in church-yards, on Allhallow eve, are supposed to have given rise to many of the tales of terror believed by the vulgar."  At least in early 19th Century Scotland, then, what was called a "candle and castock"  (what would later be called a "jack o' lantern") had an association with Halloween.

As to how turnip lanterns became associated with Halloween, it would seem there could be a simple explanation for that. The custom of pulling pranks on Halloween dates back to at least the 18th Century in the Scottish Highlands and Ireland. Both Jabez Allies and William Holloway make reference to turnip lanterns being used to frighten people. It would not take much imagination for pranksters on Halloween to decide to scare people with turnip lanterns carved to resemble a human face.

It was in North America that pumpkins would overtake turnips as the preferred vegetables for making jack o' lanterns. Pumpkins are native to North America and were cultivated by various Native American tribes. It would not be long after Europeans began colonising North America that they would also begin raising pumpkins. Pumpkins are harvested in autumn, so it was quite natural that the vegetable would become associated with the season. Not only are pumpkins harvested at autumn, but they are also much easier to carve than turnips.

Of course, while the pumpkin would become the preferred vegetable for carving jack o' lanterns, it would be some time before they would become firmly associated with Halloween. What may be the first image of a pumpkin carved as a jack o' lantern occurred in the November 23, 1867 issue of Harper's Weekly. The engraving, titled "The Pumpkin Effigy", made no reference to Halloween and that issue of Harper's Weekly came out at Thanksgiving, not Halloween.

Regardless, by the 1890s the carving of pumpkins for jack o' lanterns would be a firmly established custom at Halloween in the United States. The practice was regularly referenced in newspaper articles from the decade. By the 1900s the image of pumpkins carved as jack o' lanterns would appear frequently on Halloween postcards.  That having been said, as late as the early 20th Century people were still using other vegetables than pumpkins to make jack o' lanterns as well. In her 1912 book Games for Halloween, Mary E. Blain makes reference to jack o' lanterns "..made from apples, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, etc."

Of course, by the 1900s not only were jack o' lanterns appearing on Halloween postcards, but paper manufacturers were making paper decorations in the shape of jack o' lanterns. Many of these were made in Germany, but American companies were quick to jump onto the Halloween bandwagon as well. The Dennison Manufacturing Company began making paper Halloween decorations, including jack o' lanterns, in the 1900s. Their Halloween decorations proved so popular that in 1909 Dennison published its first Dennison's Bogie Book for Halloween, which was a guide for decorating for the holiday. Another Dennison's Bogie Book would be published in 1912. With the exception of the years of World War I, it would then be published annually until 1934. Another American company well known for their paper Halloween decorations, including jack o' lanterns, is the Beistle Company. Founded in 1900, the Beistie Company began making Halloween decorations in 1920. Over the years the Beistle Company has made several different Halloween decorations in the shape of jack o' lanterns.

It was in the early Fifties that plastic decorations in the shape of jack o' lanterns were introduced. The earliest of these decorations were simple jack o' lanterns with electric lights inside that would sit on a table or shelf. As time passed a wide variety of plastic jack o' lantern themed merchandise emerged. There were flashlights, lawn ornaments, candy containers, and so on.  Blow mould lawn ornaments reached their peak in popularity in the Sixties. The wide array of plastic jack o' lantern goods (many of which are still manufactured) were made by a number of companies, including Union Products, Empire Plastic Corp., Gregg Products, and others.

It was in 2001 that novelty and seasonal products company Gemmy Industries introduced inflatable lawn ornaments under the name "Airblown Inflatables". Among their first offerings in 2001 was an inflatable jack o' lantern. As inflatable seasonal decorations grew in popularity in the Naughts (and became an outright craze in 2006), other companies would make their own inflatable decorations, including jack o' lanterns. Since 2001 Gemmy Industries itself has introduced several variations on the jack o' lantern theme, including stacked jack o' lanterns and jack o' lanterns with licensed characters (such as Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas).

Given how strongly linked to Halloween jack o' lanterns have become, it would come as no surprise that they would play a role in popular culture. One of the earliest instances of this is the character of Jack Pumpkinhead, who first appeared in L. Frank Baum's book The Marvellous Land of Oz. As his name suggests, he has a jack o' lantern for a head. While jack o' lanterns are not referenced in Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", depictions of the Headless Horseman often depict him as having a jack o' lantern in place of his severed head (a well -known example of this can be seen in Disney's 1949 adaptation of the short story). In the movie Arsenic and Old Lace Aunts Abby and Martha give jack o' lanterns to trick-or-treaters as "treats". While Charles Schulz never actually portrayed the imaginary character Linus calls the Great Pumpkin in the comic strip Peanuts or in the famous TV special It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, in parodies it is often portrayed as a jack o' lantern. At any rate, appearances of jack o' lanterns in pop culture occur so frequently that it would be difficult to list every single instance.

It is impossible to say precisely where and when what would later be called jack o' lanterns emerged. It is not even clear exactly how they became identified with Halloween. Regardless, by the late 19th Century the jack o' lantern was firmly associated with the holiday and by the early 20th Century it would become one of Halloween's most popular symbols. Indeed, today it is difficult to think of a time when there was Halloween without jack o' lanterns.

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