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When Black Cats Prowl and Pumpkins Gleam: How Orange & Black Became Halloween

When Black Cats Prowl and Pumpkins Gleam: How Orange & Black Became Halloween

It is a truth universally assumed that Halloween adopted its banner colors because autumn is nothing if not very, very orange.

And that assumption is not false.

There's just more to the story.

In agricultural societies, particularly those within the northern hemisphere, autumn is essentially The Dying Age.

Historically, as temperatures fell, nature decayed amidst the harvest, and livestock animals were slaughtered before winter. Even the hours themselves died off earlier and earlier each day.

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

This is recognized as the impetus for the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain.

Samhain was a so-called “threshold” celebration, occurring as it did between an equinox and solstice. And the liminality of the Samhain festival is the heart of its eeriness.

This in-betweenness is what lifted the gauzy veil between reality and the Otherworld, where faeries played and the dearly departed wandered.

Samhain began at sunset on the last day of October, and concluded at sunset the next day on the first day of November; this is because, in Celtic societies, this is when a day began.

And so, in the advancing night, celebrants lit ritual bonfires atop the hills. They congregated, often throwing bones onto the flames--a practice which informs the word's etymology: a "bone fire."

These blazes were made with the friction of one piece of wood against another, the process of which was known as a 'force-fire'. Practicality aside, it likewise functioned as folk magic well into the 1800s.

It was believed that force-fires would counteract bewitchment, as well as the infectious diseases (known collectively as 'murrain') that too often befell cattle.

When the stock of any considerable farmer was seized with the murrain, he would send for one of the charm-doctors, to superintend the raising of a need-fire... By constant friction and pressure, the ends of the auger would take fire, from which a fire would be instantly kindled, and thus the needfire, would be accomplished... A fire kindled from this needfire... and the cattle [were] brought to feel the smoke of this new and sacred fire, which preserved them

The bonfires of Samhain are also believed to have served purposes of so-called sympathetic magic, wherein the fires imitated the protective elements of the sun.

And when the bonfires were sparked against the darkness, they burned, bright and oh-so-orange, in the black of night.

The black of night, in which the ghosts of the dead stepped through the permeable boundary to the living world.

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

In the light of a force-fire, all of its surroundings, too, would glow: the flickering ground, the bats tumbling down to hunt the insects drawn by the light; the celebrants themselves.

All cast in lively orange and shades of black.

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

The color orange dominates the autumn harvest season beyond the ancient fires of Samhain, of course. Just uttering the word 'October' invites mental images of fluttering orange foliage and grimacing orange gourds.

The latter, however, is a tradition grown up from American farmlands.

Pumpkins are a long-domesticated plant native to the American continents.

And while there are millions of pumpkins now grown in the United Kingdom every year, they did not exist when Irish and Scottish citizens began emigrating en masse to the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As generations of these immigrants introduced Gaelic Halloween traditions to their new country, the old-world custom of carving jack o' lanterns from turnips and potatoes was adapted to take advantage of more readily available produce: the plump and orange pumpkin.

These many natural orange elements--fire, leaves, and rotund gourds--no doubt inform the modern iteration of this peculiar gothic holiday.

But it was the savvy of one manufacturing company that popularized the color scheme that we recognize as Halloween.

The Dennison Manufacturing Company was established in 1844, when an eponymous father-and-son team pioneered a better jewelry box: one made of paper (as was standard at the time), but domestically produced, and more durable and attractive than the imported options then available.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Dennison paper-product lines had expanded to include crepe paper.

And Dennison set out to make crepe paper the most indispensable novelty decoration of them all.

‘There is something new in the old and delightfully spooky Eve of All Saints. It is paper… this sounds simple enough, but in reality it is almost magic.’

From ‘Some New Hallowe’en Magic’ by A.W.R. and published in Harper’s Bazaar, October 1912

Halloween parties, once unusual, were becoming more popular by the year.

And in Halloween, a holiday less commonly celebrated than Christmas,  the Dennison Manufacturing Company saw a profitable opportunity to promote its crepe paper by making it the go-to product for Halloween merrymaking.

Halloween decorations certainly existed prior to Dennison’s revelation, but the decorations were not commercial. Historian Lesley Bannatyne has stated that parties of this period typically used festive decor that was derived from more natural resources.

"The natural colors they had to work with in late October were largely orange and yellow: pumpkins, chrysanthemums, marigolds, corn, hay bales... But Halloween party décor was also about creating an otherworldly atmosphere — eerie, spooky, ghostly — and for that, you needed a measure of darkness."

That 'measure of darkness' was more than necessary, "for unless a mysterious atmosphere is created in the rooms," published the Pictorial Review magazine in 1907, "the festivities would cease to be interesting even to children."

So for its brand new Halloween crepe, the Dennison Manufacturing Company paired orange with black.

In addition to solid colors, Dennison made crepe with printed patterns. Printing on bright crepe paper meant using black ink--perfect for grinning cat faces, wide-winged bats, and witch silhouettes.

This black ink necessitated a brightly colored background; so, most likely running with the long-established harvest colors, Dennison chose orange, red, and yellow.

HALLOWE’EN COLORS. Orange is a bright and glowing color, well suited to decorating for Halloween. Black and white give sharp contrast and gray has a softening influence.

To sell their new Halloween crepe, Dennison decided to print a book.

Dennison had produced a so-called instruction booklet before. It was called Art and Decoration in Crepe and Tissue Paper, and it had been circulated since 1894.

But unlike its previous effort—and unlike any holiday promotional material at that time—Dennison’s Bogie Book was all about Halloween.

The Bogie Book offered easy-to-do ideas for home-made Halloween decorations, costumes, and party games--all to be accomplished with the use of specific rolls of Dennison crepe paper, complete with individual product numbers and convenient ordering instructions.

Decorate the living room with vivid orange and black. The doorway, windows, chandelier and fireplace can all be effectively “dressed up.” The doorway shown will give any timid guest a thrill as she tries to enter the room without encountering the dangling spider. To copy it, fasten natural branches above the door frame and suspend orange, yellow and black crepe paper moss from them, allowing it to hang very irregularly… the chandelier sheds a weird glow over the whole room through the long orange crepe paper fringe that surrounds it.

The Bogie Book, however, was not an overnight success.

In fact, after its initial publication, Dennison did not issue a sequel until 3 years later, in 1912.

The cover art of the 1912 edition incorporated much of what is now recognized as Halloween iconography.

The soft cover featured the silhouettes of three hunched witches around a cauldron, a trio of screeching black cats around their feet. Above their pointed hats, the tree branches are perched by owls and hung with jack o' lanterns, all of them black with bright orange eyes. Beneath the illustration, in vibrant lettering, it reads only "Dennison's BOGIE BOOK".

The 1913 Bogie Book cover art likewise featured a shadowy gathering of  witches under a tree. They are outlined against a starry sky with orange light cast by the moon. The lead witch, bent over a walking stick, has a black cat on her shoulder and a wide-eyed owl overhead. In the background, bats fly past the moon, giving the impression of a distressed face.

Halloween, it would seem, was fast catching on.

After that, the Dennison Manufacturing Company began publishing a new Bogie Book every year.

Their popularity grew so much that, by the early 1920s, the price of the Bogie Book had doubled to ten cents a piece.

A preserved countertop store display from that same time period exclaims: "HALLOWEE'N is coming Oct. 31st" and "You'll need Dennison's Bogie Book, 10¢per copy."

The cardboard display is, of course, predominantly black and orange, with a harlequin border. Its illustrations include a flying witch on a crescent moon, a prowling black cat, and a jack o' lantern.

So year after year, Americans were encouraged to buy orange-and-black printed crepe paper aplenty, or otherwise purchase Dennison's pre-fabricated stock pieces, in order to have the most fabulous and ‘weird’ Halloween parties.

Every issue included step-by-step instructions to make things like hanging honeycomb pumpkins, haunting hallways and hidden fortune tellers that would foretell romance and frivolous woe.

There were even instructions on how to make wear-once, worry-free costumes.

They were, of course, made of crepe paper.

Generic by today's standards, these disposable costumes were usually archetypically spooky Halloween characters such as harlequin figures, fortune tellers, and witches. Sometimes, girls wore more 'pretty' thematic costumes, like 'Night' or 'The Moon.'

And these outfits were always illustrated in shades of orange, red, and black.

Weird designs and bright orange in contrast with black make it possible to create very striking costumes for the Hallowe’en party with very little work.

The ongoing success and novelty of Dennison's Bogie Books set forth the iconic color palette of modern Halloween.

As other companies, such as The Beistle Company, took their cues from Dennison, they also promoted the orange-and-black color scheme for their own seasonal products.

Other publications also followed suit, contributing their own decorating advice to Halloween hostesses.

Dennison’s Bogie Books were published annually from 1912 until 1935. Only two years halted its production--the Great World War in 1918, and the onset of the Depression in 1932.

They remain some of the most highly sought-after Halloween ephemera among collectors, even today.

And thanks to the Dennison Manufacturing Company, Halloween and its allure is anything but ephemeral.

Some [superstitions] have been added—some lost; but we today, in America, celebrate the night for its weird mystery and flavor of romance, and because its games foretell the future.

Even if it turns out that Hallowe'en is made of crepe paper.

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This Is Halloween: Giles Corey

Peine Forte et Dure: Giles & Martha Corey

Giles Corey was born in England sometime in the summer of 1611, as parish records indicate that he was baptized on August 16, 1611. Data indicates that he may have moved to the colony as early as 1640 with his first wife, who bore him four daughters.

They originally settled in Salem Town, which was an "urban" and liberal seaport, before moving to Salem Village, which was backwoods and conservative, in order to farm.

His second wife bore him a son.

Giles's third wife, married in 1690, was Martha.

Martha had her scandals. She had given birth to an illegitimate son, Ben, in 1677, and he was of mixed race. She then married, and had a legitimate son named Thomas Rich.

Martha's past, however, did not trouble Giles, who was approaching 80 and had committed transgressions of his own. Specifically, he had been tried for the murder of his farmhand, Jacob Goodale (sometimes spelled Goodell or Goodall), in 1675. Giles allegedly beat the hell out of Jacob with a stick when he caught him stealing apples. Giles claimed Jacob had fallen from a horse or cart and broken his arm.

Giles eventually sent Jacob for medical treatment over a week later, but it was too little, too late. Since it was totes legal to use corporal punishment with indentured servants, Giles was accused of unreasonable force instead of outright murder and was found guilty.

So he paid a fine, and that was that.

Giles was also known for petty larceny and random acts of vandalism; the Proctors even suspected Giles for starting a fire to their property.

And I bet you thought Puritans were boring.

But back to the trials: Giles Corey was accused in the latter part of the debacle, after his own wife had been tried for witchcraft.

Illustration of Martha Corey's trial by John W. Ehninger. Originally published in "The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow," 1902.


Dear reader, you may sometimes see stories that Giles actually participated in Martha's condemnation of witchcraft due to the damning fact that she seemed to read a whole lot, but that particular detail is thanks to Arthur Miller's character in The Crucible.

In reality, Martha was a pious and devoted woman who was unabashed about her disbelief in the girls' accusations. She made it clear that she didn't believe witches existed, period.

Which, of course, solicited accusations of witchcraft against her.

During Martha's trial, in which she pleaded innocence with unnerving calmness, the girls performed their typical histrionics. A tall and ominous man was whispering in Martha's ear, they said. A yellow bird--i.e., her familiar, which was gifted to her by Satan as an emissary--was suckling from the flesh between her fingertips, they said.

Illustration of Martha Corey as she's accused of harnessing "a flock of yellow birds." By Howard W. Pyle for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1893.


Additionally, before Martha's arrest, one of the most vocal accusers, Ann Putnam, Jr., had claimed Martha's spectre was tormenting her.

So the magistrates asked her what clothes Martha was wearing, and then went to go see for themselves, to confirm that Martha's clothes matched the girl's description. But Ann found herself conveniently blinded by Martha's evil hand, and thus could neither confirm nor deny Martha's wardrobe choices.

Unsurprisingly, Martha was found guilty and sent to jail, although she was later temporarily transferred to Boston due to overcrowding.

Giles, good guy that he was, had actually testified against his wife on March 24, 1692.

He declared that he'd found his ox "hipped" (id est, lame) in the yard and he was unable to yoke him, and that their cat seemed dead and Martha told him to knock it in the head, but he didn't, and it was somehow "presently" well.

Plus, he had seen Martha kneeling at the hearth as if in prayer, but didn't actually hear her praying.

She was, clearly, a witch.

But once Giles was accused himself of being a wizard, he refused to enter any more evidence against Martha.

Moreover, he refused to enter a plea, and because of this, trial could not proceed.

Historians still differ in their opinions about why Giles "stood mute," as was the widely used legal term for Giles's strategy. Some insist that Giles would not enter a plea because he knew that, if he did please and was invariably found guilty, that his expansive property and his prosperous holdings would be forfeited to authorities. By his refusal to plead himself neither innocent nor guilty, Giles's property would be passed on according to his final will and testament.

Some further believe that he was primarily accused to facilitate this very seizure; this hypothesis is supported by the fact that Sheriff Corwin extorted money from Giles's children. His daughter filed for damages in 1710.

Others believe that the interpretation of the law preserved a convicted person's right to pass his estate to his selected heirs, and moreover, that Giles had previously deeded his land away in anticipation of this issue. So "standing mute," it's argued, was the ultimate protest to preserve his name.

Engraving of Giles Corey's trial by C.S. Reinhardt. Originally published in "A Popular History of the United States," Vol. II, 1878.


And so, Giles Corey was crushed to death.

Because Giles refused to enter his plea, Sheriff George Corwin, assigned by the Court of Oyer and Terminer, decided to enact Peine Forte Et Dure to "press" a confession out of the old man.

But pressing was more involved than just putting jagged rocks on top of someone.

On September 17, 1692, in accordance with Corwin's orders, Giles was stripped naked and dragged through a field beside the jail. There, they had dug a shallow pit and put a wooden board on top of it. They forced Giles down, put another plank on top of him, and then began piling weight on, rock by dreadful rock.

And he said not a word.

By all accounts, Giles did not even cry out. For two days, he endured this medieval torture without speaking, and without reprieve. Law mandated that he was only given three pieces of the "worst bread" and three servings of water, alternating by day until a confession was forthcoming.

And until then: rock. By. Rock.

Illustration of the pressing of Giles Corey. Originally published in "Witchcraft Illustrated," 1892.


By September 19, Giles's eyes were bulging from their sockets, and his tongue was stuck outside of his mouth. Accounts indicate that Sheriff Corwin, during one of his attempts to solicit confession, stuck Giles's tongue back in with the tip of his cane.

Corwin tried three times to eke a plea out of Giles, reportedly even standing on top of the pressing stones. But Giles only deigned to beg, "More rocks." (It's most often reported as "More weight." But that may have also been extrapolated from Miller's The Crucible.)

It's told that with his dying breath, Giles Corey cursed Sheriff Corwin and the whole of Salem.

By Howard W. Pyle for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1893.


Accounts of anyone being subjected to Peine Forte Et Dure are unusual, and singular to Giles Corey on the American continent.

Martha Corey was hanged at Proctor's Ledge three days later on September 22, 1692.

A memorial, which consists of inscribed benches for each of the executed, bears both their names.

Memorial to Giles Corey.


Giles Corey's gruesome execution, along with the noose-side recitation of the Lord's Prayer by Reverend George Burroughs, is rumored to have incited doubt in Salem's hysterical residents about the validity of the witch trials.

Giles's curse was said to plague all Salem sheriffs with heart and/or sanguine diseases until they moved the Sheriff Department out of town in the early 1990s.

The curse began with George Corwin himself, who suffered a fatal heart attack at only 30 years old in 1696. It was less than four years after Giles's execution.

And in 1978, Salem Sheriff Robert Cahill suffered his own sanguine conditions, including heart attack and stroke. He looked back through department records to find that each of his predecessors had, too.

Giles Corey's apparition was reportedly witnessed the night before the devastating Salem fire of 1914. Legend persists that to see his ghost is a harbinger of misfortune in Salem.

* Note: The Salem Witch Trials are relentlessly associated with Halloween, which I have not and do not agree with... Just because the word "witch" is used does not change the fact that it was a horrific travesty of justice. Salem itself, however, appears to have no such qualms. And because Halloween always draws attention to the trials, this is easily the best time to present a history lesson and memorial.

So there's the why of it.

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