The Victorian Era
Hosting a Victorian Halloween Party is a great way to delve into your creative side AND have fun exploring old-fashioned past-times. In this article we'll explore some of the history of the Victorian Era, explore the cultural origins of popular customs of the day, and discover some creative ways to bring the past alive in your own home.
The "Victorian Era" is named, and then covers, the time period that Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain, from 1837 to 1901.
Holidays and parties were an important part of the passing years for people of all classes. From harvest celebrations in rural settings, to grand parties in the sprawling urban cities, holiday traditions were welcomed by all.
In parts of the United States, mainly New England and the Deep South, cultural influences from Great Britain had a strong influence on the newly growing middle classes of America. The Victorian Middle Class became enthralled with the quaint traditions of the Old World after observing the customs of the newly arrived Irish and Scottish immigrants in the mid 19th century.
Not all celebrations were considered tasteful or socially appropriate. For example, elements of the pagan celebrations of Samhain, and the spiritual observance of All Hallows Eve, were considered too unruly. They set about refining the holidays from a day of the dead, to a day of harvest celebrations, and lighthearted matchmaking. Families began hosting private parties for children and young unmarried adults, who's chief aim was entertainment and divining one's future.
While the Victorians refined many aspects of All Hallows Eve, they conversely had an intense interest in spiritualism and the supernatural. Holding seances and telling ghost stories were a popular form of entertainment all year round, but especially enjoyable on Halloween.
Take a moment to consider your party space and where to find decorating materials.
Create a mental flow chart.
From the moment your guests enter your house they should feel as if they have passed through a veil to a time long hence gone by. In order to achieve this consider some of the following: What area will you be decorating? How many rooms? And what will your theme be?
The first thing to decide on is the area in which you will be decorating. Keep in mind that the more space you plan to occupy during your party, the more time and money you will need to spend preparing. Try to keep the areas your guests will occupy as cohesively decorated as possible, and block off areas not meant for guests with dark and thick curtains, or harvest decorations. Remember, sometimes less is more! Once you know what rooms or areas you are decorating, start making a list of the supplies you will need for each designated space.
Where to shop.
There are a variety of options to choose from when decorating with a Victorian flare for Halloween. You can make it as expensive or inexpensive as you like. Great places to find cheap, to moderately priced decorating materials, are your local thrift stores such as: Goodwill, The Salvation Army, flea markets, or a local second-hand store. If you plan ahead during the summer months, take a look at yard sales for Victorian style; laces, dishware, bowls, mirrors, and candle holders. You can also find discounted fabrics, and lots of other crafting materials, at fabric and craft stores. Starting in September, many of these stores will start to sell Halloween merchandise at a discounted price, and there are often Victorian Era inspired decorations. Also, It never hurts to ask friends and family if they have something on your list that you can borrow. Another option for finding decorations is at party stores like, Party City and Halloween Express.
Victorian Entertaining and Colors
Colors: Picking a color scheme:
Depending on the mood you want to set, picking a color scheme can aid you in setting the mood of your party. Brighter colors create a more jolly and festive atmosphere of lightheartedness that the Victorian's often made of their Halloween Parties. These can be especially appropriate for younger party goers. Colors in the middle of the spectrum will give a more traditional, harvest festival theme to your party. Not too bright, not too dark, they are quintessential for throwing a party with divination games and bobbing for apples. The darker end of the spectrum delves into the more macabre side of the Victorian Era. Those prone to exploring the world beyond, through the aid of a medium, or the popular Gothic novel.
What colors to use: Colors were popular in the Victorian Era, so whatever mood you intend to set, make sure you incorporate at least a few colors. Reds, oranges, brown, yellows, greens, and purples as well as black and white. Gold and silver was also used for fine details and embellishments.
The Victorian's decorated for their parties by adding brightly colored harvest decorations and newly incorporated Halloween images such as; cats, ghosts, devils, witches, and jack-o-lanterns to everyday housewares.
The following is a chart of suggested supplies to pick up, find about your house or a friends house.
|Paper||Fabric||Harvest Items||Constructing Supplies||Embellishments|
Bales of hay
Victorian Puch Bowl
Yards of Fabric
Old black and white photos
Discount bin fabric
Sheets/Rolls of paper
Medium sized wooden/metal/plastic tub (for apple bobbing)
Fake Leaves and Flowers
Real Leaves and flowers
Paint brush/ Paint sponge
Victorian Era Decorations
Start decorating your Victorian party by adding a few, everyday Victorian Era housewares. This will add a special authenticity to your party. Victorian style dinnerware, silverware, candelabras, punch bowls, lace, and napkins are excellent and often easy to find additions. If you have the time and capability, try embroidering a Halloween motif on a set of cloth napkins. If you don't have the time, you can also buy them off of sites like Etsy, in stores, or for a more economical option, you can buy Halloween themed paper napkins.
The Victorian's were the ones to popularize the images now associated with Halloween such as; black cats, bats, witches, devils, ghosts and jack-o-lanterns. Using fabric and paper, they embellished table cloths with silhouettes of black cats and bats, and put paper devils and witches in windows. Elaborate, harvest centerpieces were incorporated; as well as harvest decorations of leaves, flowers, and corn pinned to walls and hanging from ceilings. With grinning, twinkling Jack-o-Lanterns lined up stairways, windowsills, and walkways. Once you have the foundation of Victorian pieces set up, add these harvest and Halloween themed decorations as a final touch.
The Victorian hostess always included her much loved flowers when decorating for any event. In keeping with the Victorian obsession for attention to detail and etiquette, flowers were of great importance; and were even given special meanings. Depending on the specific species, and/or color of the flower, and the particular arrangement, the meanings could range between that of joy and celebration, to that of sorrow and mourning. A rather macabre example is to arrange a vase of red and white flowers, as this would have been seen as an omen that a death would soon follow. You can also use oranges, yellows, autumn colored leaves, and purples in your arrangements as well. Whatever flowers you choose will make beautiful accents and can easily be added to any harvest themed decoration.
Lastly, adding candles, as the primary lighting source, will enhance the spooky, other world mood of the party. The more candles the better! Set them around the room, on tables, on mantle-pieces, on windowsills, and in front of mirrors. If you don't have the money to buy a couple dozen candles, go a head a buy a couple strings of mini-lights, orange and purple work the best, and strategically place them around the room. They emit a surprising amount of light, and will create a similar, old timey effect as candles.
The following chart has some suggestions for decorations with the various materials from the above chart.
Light Up Your Victorian Night With Candles
Victorian Decoration Ideas
|Silouettes (made from paper or fabric)||Harvest Materials||Victorian Additions|
Table Cloth (Line the skirt of the table cloth with a pattern of silouettes)
Lace: Table runners or place mats
Crysal (glass/plastic) goblets
Crystal (glass/plastic) punch bowl
Send invitations in the shape of one of your silouette patterns. Creative and a great way to add cohession
Embroidered cloth napkins (or halloween themed paper napkins)
Candles of all shapes, types and sizes. (A few stratigically placed strands of mini lights will do as well)
Setting the Mood with Music.
After spending all that time on the decorations, food, and entertainment; it would be a shame for the party to miss a beat by not having the right music.The vast array of music available from the Victorian period will help keep your party festive. While there really is no official Halloween music, there are certainly different songs that will foster jolly, somber, or spooky atmospheres. If you are lucky enough to own a piano (and know how to play) learning a few songs will be a welcome surprise to your guests. Otherwise, you can always find music on cd's, the internet, and records. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: Caplet: The Masque of the Red Death, Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Ligeti: Requiem, Schoenberg: Erwartung, Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Debussy: Arabesque I/ Clair de Lune, and of course Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain. Another song that was very popular during the Victorian Era was a traditional ballad from England and Scotland, Barbara Allen. Though not necessarily eerie, it is appropriate for Halloween as it ends with two dead "lovers".
Victorian Dishes, Drinks, and Sweets
Meat dishes: such as partridge, pigeon, chicken,ham, fish
The Cock Tail
Barmbrack Cake (fruit cake with 5 hidden objects)
Soups: Eel, broth soups, turnip soup, pea soup
Vegetable platter: olives, potoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash
The Sherry Cobbler
Salads: Lobster, green bean, tomato, hot potato salad
Cakes and Pastries
Side dishes: Rice, pickled vegetables, rolls, sweet cream and fruit preserves
Hot Apple Cider/Hot Chocolate
Salt Water Taffy
Pies: (Apple, Pumpkin)
Victorian Food and Beverage Recipes
- Cocktail Hour: Drink What Dickens Drank « Four Pounds Flour
- 1890s Victorian Kitchen
- Victorian Pride - History of Victorian Food in America
- The Victorian Pantry, Authentic Vintage Recipies
Entertaining guests: Food and Beverages
Now that you have decked your Halloween party out in Victorian fashion, it is time to plan the rest of your soiree. Decorating is not the only way to delve into creating a truly memorable experience for your guests. Most Victorian Halloween parties started off the merry-making with the Dame Halloween (female hostess) serving a Barmbrack Cake. This is a fruit cake baked with 5 hidden objects that foretold the fortunes of those who found them. Also consider serving some popular dishes, deserts, and drinks that were favorites among the Victorians. Whether you will be serving alcohol or not, there are many fun and tasty drinks to serve your guests, such as: punches, champagne, wines, cocktails, and of course the most Victorian beverage of all, tea! If you are sitting down to a formal dinner treat your guests to a variety of food, and if your especially eager, try serving several courses. Have fun discovering some new dishes and delving into the indulgent treats of the Victorians. For more ideas, recipes, and baking tips check out the links above!
Entertaining Your Guests: Games and Activities
Besides eating at parties, the Victorians loved to participate in playful activities, especially on Halloween. One popular game that is still played today was bobbing for apples. Hostesses would place apples in a large wooden tub of water or hang apples from the ceiling. In both cases, the player could only use their mouths and teeth to catch the apple, and when bobbing for the hanging apple would have their hands tied behind their back.
Parlor games were popular forms of entertainment, charades being a favorite among the Victorians. The charades of the 19th century was a bit more elaborate than is usually thought of today, and had different variations and levels of difficulty. The hostess provided makeshift costumes and props for guests to perform with. When inviting your guests ask them to bring an extra item to two of clothing or props to be used during the party, this will heighten their curiosity and make providing party supplies a little easier for you.
A favorite activity among the girls and young women, were divination and fortune telling games. There are hundreds of variations of different fortunetelling games to play with your guests. One variation that can easily be included in your party is the "Luggie Bowls". To play, set up three bowls; one with clean water, one with soapy water, and one empty. The person playing is blindfolded and the bowl they pick determines their fortune for the coming year. There are variations as to what fortune is given, but one version states that; the bowl of water foretells marriage within the year, the soapy water, that you will marry an old but wealthy man; and the empty bowl, that you will never marry.
The Victorians had also developed a keen interest in Spiritualism, and many adults would host seances in an attempt to commune with the spirit world. Consider hiring a fortune teller, or google palm reading, and have some fun divining your guests' futures. Other items to consider using to divine the future or commune with the spirits are; a crystal ball, tarot cards, or a Ouija board.
Any Halloween party would not be complete without a chilling ghost story told by candlelight. The Victorian's loved the ghostly tales from the Old World and incorporated them into their storytelling on Halloween. Tales of malignant faeries from Ireland and Scotland, a trickster named Jack, trapped between heaven and hell (the origin of Jack-O-Lanterns); and ghosts who haunted the places they had once roamed. Sitting by the fireplace or in a darkened room lit with candles, take turns telling ghost stories or reading aloud from a Victorian Era book.
A great book to look for is, The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, full of eerie tales to share with your guests. There are many great writers to chose from, my personal favorite being J.S. Le Fanu. Laura Silver Bell and The Child that Went with the Fairies, will leave guests with a particularly chilling impression.
Look bellow for links to websites with different Victorian parlor and fortunetelling games, including detailed instructions on how to play them.
Ghost and Supernatural Stories
- Victorian Ghost Stories
A spooky collection of Victorian era ghost stories and links.
- Laura Silver Bell by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
- The Child that Went with the Fairies by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Victorian Parlor Games
- Haunted Bay - Halloween Divination Games
Halloween Divination Games
- The Victorian School
- Tostenson Brothers Farm - Victorian Parlor Games
The Victorian's would often alter their everyday clothing, adding props or embellishments, to create a costume. The most popular costumes appear to have been witches and ghosts. Other costumes that appear on post cards, and in pictures of the time, include: bats, devils, different versions of little Bo-Peep or mother goose, harlequins and clowns, and Indians.
Other costumes seem to have been more elaborate; portraying themes, concepts and animals. A few theme and concept costumes include women's dresses stenciled with different objects to portray; a deck of cards, the queen of hearts, a sewing kit, and a jewelry box. Headdress pieces were often incorporated into many of the costumes, including; pointed hats, bat ears, devil horns, and other unique pieces to help in the portrayal of concept costumes.
Egyptian and Orient themed costumes were also popular, especially among the more wealthy of the Victorians.The more elaborate costumes often incorporated full head masks made of fabric, animal skins, or plaster. There are some truly bizarre and rather creepy pictures of costumes from the late Victorian Era, all well worth taking a look at.
Have your guests dress up in Victorian Era costumes! This is a great way to tie in the whole theme of the party. Tell your guests to have fun exploring and interpreting costumes of the Victorian Era, awarding prizes for the most realistic, interesting, bizarre, creative, and scary costumes. The most important thing to remember about dressing up for Halloween is to have fun and be creative! You and your guests will find yourselves delving into the spirit of Halloween garbed in Victorian costume, bobbing for apples, eating and drinking delicious treats, and gathering around in a candle lit room, listening to spine tingling stories. Best of all you will all have an incredible Halloween to remember.
Kathy on September 30, 2016:
This is a fantastic article! So many helpful ideas for a great Halloween party!