Category Archives: culture

Cultural observations.

Halloween and The Pinup Witch

Wicked Witch of the West by Denslow
Wicked Witch of the West illustration by William Wallace Denslow. 1900.

The image of the Wicked Witch of the West in both Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) — and the arguably more famous 1939 MGM film of similar name — is what most people associate with the witch in popular culture: a creepy old crone wearing a pointed hat that may or may not be sitting on a broomstick. But for a time in the mid-twentieth century, a decidly different witch gained popularity, melding the trappings of witchery and Halloween with the then ubiquitous pinup girls that graced calendars and magazines during World War II… and well into the nineteen fifties and sixties.

Halloween Witch postcard
Halloween Witch depicted on a Tuck postcard. 1908.

The transformation, however, wasn’t so much a sudden shift from a prim and proper nineteenth century into a more sexually permissive twentieth. It was a gradual transformation from centuries’ old suspicion to modern fascination.

Depictions of witches in Fin de Siècle and early twentieth century popular culture  — perhaps best studied in picture postcards (which became quite popular as a result of their 1893 Columbian Exposition) — mostly show the crone.

Halloween postcard, circa 1910.
Halloween postcard (circa 1910). Publisher unknown.

In fact, in the years that sending picture postcards through the mail were at their most popular (“The Golden Age of Postcards” from 1907 to 1915), the majority of those meant for Halloween showed the witch as an old woman.

An example of a young woman as witch
An example of a young woman as witch. Circa 1910. Publisher unknown.

There were exceptions, of course. The witch postcard at left, for example (circa 1910) shows a young woman.  And a cursory examination of many online postcard libraries online* reveals that, in addition to young woman and old crone, there are also children depicted in witch costumes. So postcards obviously do not tell the whole story. While we do not have the massive Halloween industry of today that cranks out hundreds of styles of plastic, paper and metal decorative items, there is evidence in ephemera other than postcards that fills some gaps in the history of depiction of witches.

Pears Soap ad. 1889.
Pears Soap ad. 1889.

An ad for Pears Soap from 1889, for example, shows a naked witch riding a broomstick, with very little context for why she was there beyond being “a fair maiden” in the sky. Other ephemera from the 1880s and 90s similarly depicted young, attractive witches (see, for example, this Sapolio ad in Collier’s Magazine from 1899 [again, a soap ad!].

It was a time of Art Nouveau, when depictions of women were becoming more sexualized, but also the time of the “New Woman” (a term which entered the language in 1894) who was beginning to influence art, politics, and culture — as she was more confident, had more disposable income, and was… well… just more.

Over a few short decades, this New Woman was being described (at least in this excerpt from “Feminine Values” in the March 1930 issue of The Chicago Tribune) as “[getting] what she wants. The vote. Slim sheaths of silk to replace voluminous petticoats. Glassware in sapphire blue or glowing amber. The right to a career. Soap to match her bathroom’s color scheme…” [again with the soap!] …and this odd mix of liberation and materialism suited the times: a period of American history known for its focus on glamour, leisure, and yes, sexuality. It was a time of the flapper, the Ziegfield Girls, and, curiously, the Ipswitch Hosiery witch.

Ipswich Hosiery logo
Often used Ipswich Hosiery advertising and product logo.

Founded in 1868, Ipswich Hosiery** became one of the largest hosiery makers in the world between 1916 and 1919. The company name — taken from the town in Massachusetts where their mills were located … a town where a woman was hanged for witchcraft in 1692 — inspired their logo. A silhouette of a witch riding on a stocking instead of a broomstick, it was used in some advertisements and on some product packagaing in the nineteen twenties.

Ipswich DeLuxe Hosiery Ad
Costume? Or an almost old-fashioned depiction of a woman’s proper dress is evident in this Ipswich Hosiery ad.

Some ads from Ipswich Hosiery touted “The Modern Witch,” and they are curious as some of the art harkens back to a Victorian sensibility while others show the “New Woman,” free of her petticoats. It was as if the history of the company and its advertising ran along a parallel track with both the depiction of women AND of the witch in the nineteen tens and twenties.

Ipswich Hosiery Ad
An Ipswich Hosiery ad showing the modern woman, eroticized and idealized and in the style of Art Deco.

The two Ipswitch witches shown here reveal a push and pull of artistic sensibilities — perhaps reflecting the company’s perception of the wide range of styles (and expectations of representation) among customers themselves. How did the women of the nineteen tens and twenties see themselves? Which version most appealed to these women? And which versions appealed to men… for these ads, designed for women, were almost certainly done by men — with their conflicting desires to depict both the “girl next door” and a highly eroticized woman.

It is, perhaps, in those conflicts that the pinup girl finds her origins.


Although some might argue that the Gibson Girl of the turn of the century is the first of the pinups, “Petty Girls” and “Varga Girls” are perhaps the best known and truest form of holiday pinup art. The term “pinup girl” entered the language in 1941***, and the witch was pretty much there from the beginning in many calendars and advertisements produced from the nineteen forties onward.

A pinup witch from George Petty. True Magazine Calendar. 1947.
A pinup witch from George Petty. True Magazine Calendar. 1947.

George Petty — of the “Petty Girls” — began work Esquire in the 1930s. His early work would be more cartoonish, featuring scantily clad women and a character called “the old codger” (or “old duffer”) but as people begain responding positiviely more and more just to the illustrations of women, Esquire commissioned Petty to work almost exclusively on pinups — with their annual pinup calendar of the 1940s selling particularly well. Petty’s work was so popular in the thirties and forties that he was in high demand in the world of advertising — which paid better than magazines.  Eventually, he began to want more money from Esquire. Although he continued to do work on and off for the magazine until 1956, Esquire often turned to his unofficial successor, Alberto Vargas, for pinup illustrations instead (as Vargas would often work for less).

Esquire Calendar. July. 1940. Alberto Vargas.
Esquire Calendar. July. 1940. Alberto Vargas.

Vargas’ career began with illustrations for the Ziegfield Follies and Hollywood posters (like Sin of Norma Moran). By 1939, blacklisted by Hollywood for “walking off the job” in solidarity with union advocates at Warner Brothers, Vargas found himself in need of work. He would turn to pure pinup art, and  especially became known for his work on the “Esquire Girl” calendar. The first was in 1940. Each month would feature a different girl, dressed for that month’s most prominent holiday.

Gil Elvgren. Witch. 1958.
Gil Elvgren. “Riding High” Witch. 1958. Blotter card, used to blot excess ink and prevent smearing when using fountain pens.

Gil Elvgren also worked during the same period. In 1937, Elvgren began his pinup career for Louis F. Dow, one of the U.S.’ biggest publishing companies at the time. His pinup witch from 1958**** is still used today on many a Halloween decoration that one can easily find on Etsy. Online and available for sale, Elvgren’s witch is just one of a variety of pieces one can find (apparently out of copyright) by so many other pinup artists of the period (Earl Moran, Michael Silver, and Harry Ekman, just to name a few).

It is in Vargas’ work for the Halloween holiday, however, that the evolution of the depiction of the witch in popular culture is perhaps best seen. His illustration of a witch for a deck of playing cards, for example (below), reflects how Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and even the Gibson, Ipswich, and Ziegfield girls all come together in an illustration that is equal parts ethereal and earthy.

Alberto Vargas. Jack of Hearts. Bewitched. 1953.
Alberto Vargas. “Bewitched.” Playing card. Back of Jack of Hearts. 1953.
Halloween Pinup Gale Robbins
Gale Robbins — an actress and singer who gained her greatest fame as a popular World War II pinup girl — as a witch for Halloween. 1945.

But it’s not just the painted pinup that became popular in the forties and fifties. It could be said that Hollywood had already perfected the pinup in the famous photo of Betty Grable from 1943.***** And the pinup witch? From the nineteen forties through the nineteen fifties in Hollywood cheesecake photography, she found her heyday, replete with fishnet stockings and a pointy hat.

Veronica Lake in a promotional still for 1942's I MARRIED A WITCH
Looking very much the pinup, Veronica Lake in a promotional still for 1942’s I MARRIED A WITCH

Film and television would further influence the public perception of the witch. 1942’s I MARRIED A WITCH saw Veronica Lake looking very much the pinup in promotional materials for the film. And while 1958’s BELL BOOK AND CANDLE eschewed the trappings of witch, it and I MARRIED A WITCH heavily influenced “Bewitched,” the beloved television series which ran from 1964 to 1972.

But the printed pinup calendar and witchy women in Hollywood photos, film, and TV fell out of favor by the nineteen seventies. Images of the highly sexualized witch would continue in men’s adult magazines. Playboy, for example — for whom Vargas also worked (through the late sixties) — found continued success through to the eighties and nineties, even while the traditional pinup girl (now downright innocent by comparison) would ultimately go into decline.

But the early 21st century would find yet another change: as print images and other traditional forms of media were pretty much becoming a thing of the past, social media and smartphones would democratize the taking and sharing of digital “pinup” photos. Say what you will about their proliferation, today’s Instagram photos put much of the power over the image directly into women’s hands. Many of these women have discovered the “retro” pinup look. What’s old is new again.

As for the witch? One could find in the history of depictions of the witch in popular culture a thread that finds its source in the neopaganist, Jungian archetype of the Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother, and Crone). But that’s a blog entry of a completely different kind. For now, it is best to end here with a simple observation: popular culture of the last one-hundred-and-fifty odd years turned what was once wild, supernatural and usually repulsive into something tamed, earthy and societally attractive. The Pinup Witch had arrived, and she remains a staple of Halloween to this day.



* For those interested in holiday postcards, here’s just one example of the online libraries you can browse: New York Public Library.

** Click here for a detailed history of Ipswich Hosiery.

*** Movers and shakers : a chronology of words that shaped our age. Alto. 2006. Oxford University Press.

**** Gil Elvgren’s model for “Riding High” is rarely credited. She’s model and actress Marilyn Hanold. Click here for photo.

***** Vargas actually drew Grable for the poster for 1941’s MOON OVER MIAMI.

Interested in Alberto Vargas’ art? Visit, a site representing artwork of the Alberto Vargas Family Archive.

Halloween, Newspapers, and Mid-19th Century America

Pouring over newspapers, and no mention of Halloween? A 1910 illustration by Charles Mills Sheldon shows Edgar Allan Poe at work. Photo: Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images

Among writers associated with Halloween, Edgar Allan Poe is arguably the one whose prose and poems are most often read this time of year. Yet Poe himself was unlikely aware of the holiday. If he were, he certainly would have noted in his letters awareness of the Robert Burns poem of 1785, or reading about Halloween and its traditions in periodicals of his time. Newspapers and magazines, after all, were his bread and butter. But there’s no mention at all of Halloween in his works. Poe died in 1849, and a brief study of American newspapers of the period would support a theory that he didn’t know much if anything about Halloween because observance of the holiday didn’t really take off in America until after 1850.

What, still no mention of Halloween? “An extensively read News paper” by
David Claypoole Johnston, 1834. Source: AAS Archive.

The Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” service is a great resource for finding answers. At first only referenced in stories about the crimes of Burke and Hare occurring on October 31, the words “Halloween,” “Hallowe’en” and even “All Hallow’s Eve,” appear infrequently in American newspapers of the eighteen twenties and thirties. Other than Burns’ poem being referenced in a story about Christmas in Virginia’s Phenix Gazette in late 1832, it’s not until a brief mention in an 1836 issue of “Ladey Book” (aka Godey’s Magazine) that festivities of the day are given more than a passing reference [note: the author mistakenly credits “Ladey’s Book” as the earliest mention, which, as shown previously with Phenix Gazette, is not the case].

But in November of 1848, in a story in New Orleans’ Daily Crescent Gazette, Halloween is finally discussed by a journalist in some detail:

A future husband’s face revealed on Halloween. Postcard from 1904. Wikimedia Commons.

“The Eve of All Hallows, or Hallow E’en, is a memorable day throughout all Scotland ; but it is regarded more as a festival, which is consecrated to the interests of lads and lassies, and the revelation of the future destinies of loves, than a commemoration of the virtues of the saints. Many a foolish rite is performed more for amusement than from any real expectations of lifting up the veil of futurity and discovering things to come.”

There’s no mention of ghosts and witches, however. Nothing of the supernatural we have come to associate with Halloween. More in line with Burns’ poem, really.

It wouldn’t be until 1850 that one negative aspect of the holiday — as Americans have come to know it at least — is mentioned: mischief. One writer in The New York Daily Tribune of November first that year, makes it clear his or her disdain for the day.

“HALLOWE’EN — Last night, the closing night of the month, was an anniversary which is now almost entirely disregarded in these parts — the old festival of Hallowe’en or All Hallow’s Eve, still duly reverenced in England and Scotland, as well as in some portions of our own country. Its celebration here, however, has regenerated into the practice of all sorts of mischief; the only spirits abroad are imps of fun and fancy…”

It’s the first reference (that I could find at least) that mentions “spirits” of any kind (human as they are). The article ends:

“The sober sense of our community, however, is making way against these relics of ancestral customs and the Eve, with all its more innocent rites of maids that practice mysterious spells to get sight of their future husbands faces, will soon pass out of all memory except such as lives forever in the hale, warm and homely fireside pictures of Burns.”

Oh, was this author wrong.

By 1852, references to Halloween pick up in periodicals. Virginia’s Staunton Spectator of October 27 that year has a whole article devoted to “Rites of the Scottish Halloween.”

By the time of Civil War, was Halloween known to most? Here, President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis is depicted as a reaper with all of the trappings of Halloween. Harper’s Weekly magazine, October 26, 1861.

In 1853, The Washington Sentinel on November 2nd notes vandalism on the day. A handful of other papers through 1859 make note of the holiday (mostly in passing). Then comes 1860, and an explosion of mentions.

Dozens of publications start to make note of the holiday in 1860, most notably a work of fiction called “Not a Spectre” by Mary Kyle Dallas in California’s Mountain Democrat of August 11 of that year. It could very well be the first true American Halloween-related ghost story… or is it? While the answer may be obvious from the title, the story nonetheless cements the association of the holiday with the supernatural.

A starving boy and girl rake the ground for potatoes during the Irish Potato Famine, which began in the 1840s. Illustration by James Mahoney, 1847.

But why did it take until the 1850s and (more so) the 1860s before Halloween became a more pervasive topic for mid-19th century journalists? Many posit the theory that the potato famine in Ireland (and later, Scotland) from roughly 1845 to 1852, saw Irish immigrants bring with them Celtic holidays and traditions, including Halloween. It would make sense that, as these immigrants settled into their communities — and made their way East to West across the United States — that periodicals of the time reflected the influence of this immigrant wave.

The timing is certainly right.

To be clear, Halloween is mentioned in many a work of fiction in the British Isles prior to the mid-19th century. An excellent overview is provided by Halloween expert Lesley Bannatyne. And Bannatyne also points out that what may be the first American Opera, “The Disappointment” of 1767, features a conjurer claiming possession of a diving rod cut on Halloween. Yet it’s a quick reference and not a major plot device; it is doubtful it made much of an impression on audiences of the time

Even Bannatyne — having done extensive research (for which she deserves so much recognition) — doesn’t seem to mention another instance of Halloween and American fiction until the publication of “By Cupid’s Trick” in 1885; in another article, however, she cites periodicals of the 1870s as referencing Halloween. She’s right, but as has been seen in this article, those mentions actually start as early as 1850.

Regardless, it’s clear from a search of 19th-century American periodicals that the 1850s and 1860s were the years that awareness of Halloween gained momentum.

Into the 1870s and up until the close of the century, more and more papers cover the events of October 31 — even making it all the way to The Hawaiian Gazette in 1895, where a journalist noted that

“A Scotch writer who contributed an article to an American newspaper about Halloween last year declared himself ‘very much impressed by the almost universal observance of Halloween and its old customes in America.'”

By 1900 and into the twentieth century, Halloween truly began to take shape as more of what we know today (with its witches, ghosts, and jack-o’-lanterns). But American journalists prior to 1850? Like Poe, they definitely knew little, if much at all, about the folklore and traditions of All Hallow’s Eve.