Halloween is big business for history. Just this morning I met Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin on BART in San Francisco as they headed home from celebrating in the Castro. Honest Abe, true to form, gave my outfit a tip-of-the-stovepipe-hat and a playful tug on his whiskers to prove they were real. I watched through side-glances as Benjamin Franklin, aptly in character as America’s first philanderer, tried to get the contact info of an unsuspecting woman, in effect re-staging the Office episode where Jim sends a historical impersonator to Phyllis’s bachelorette party. I wanted to ask Franklin about those ten mutilated bodies historians and architects found while renovating his house, but instead tried to avoid eye contact. Fat Elvis gave me a Kit Kat outside the Ferry Building and in a house party, I politely tried to have a conversation with sexy “Poke-a-Hottie-Hontas” about why her costume was incredibly insensitive to millions of tribal women and every other woman for that matter.

Thirty-six million children dress up to trick-or-treat each year in America and we spend 2.6 billion dollars in the process. Although Halloween is rooted in all things fantastically spooky, the majority of costumes are somehow inspired by the past. Even highly commercial Toy Story characters like Buzz Lightyear and Woody stem from romantic interpretations of ‘good guy’ cowboys out West and space race icons from the 1960s like Buzz Aldrin. People flock to ghost tours at ‘haunted historical sites’ fraught with complex layers of history, memory, and sensationalism. Cemeteries like Mt. Auburn and Hollywood Forever let you walk amongst the famous dead’s resting places. The U.S. History Scene team’s personal favorite is the ‘historical reenactment’ museum in Salem, Massachusetts.  You might not get Bette Midler and a corseted Sarah Jessica Parker singing “I Put A Spell On You” as the Sanderson Sisters, but you can watch an animatronic puritan Cotton Mathers dig up skulls to do experiments on. For real.

Salem Witch Museum Mannequins with Stink Eye Puritan. Salem, MA.
Salem Witch Museum Mannequins with Stink Eye Puritan. Salem, MA.


Even though Halloween is one of our favorite holidays, when it comes to historical accuracy, cultural politics, race, sexuality, and overall sensitivity, Halloween is a hot mess (and not in the fun ‘put a bunny tail or cat ears on it’ sort of way). Julianne Hough could have been saved a taboo racial transgression (or a hate crime depending on how you read it) had she just checked out our article on blackface caricature in America. Halloween can actually be a wonderful way to teach children about true American heroes, an excuse to read about badasses from the past, and your unique historical costume can make you stand out in a crowd and serve as a great conversation starter, and U.S. History Scene is here to help.

How to Talk About Classic Halloween Costumes & Make Them Historically Accurate

Love the Flapper look? Drop the Daisy Buchannan. She will be overdone this year and Leonardo Dicaprio only dates models anyways. Go for real flappers and cultural rebels like Dorothy Parker, Coco Chanel, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith, or “It Girl” Clara Bow. Reading recommendation: Saidiya Hartman’s new book “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.”

The Indian Maiden: My personal advice? Say no. Do not do it. Sexualizing anonymous ‘maidens’ with mismatched tribal garb and ‘red face’ stereotypes does not honor or appreciate a culture, it engages in cultural imperialism. It is disturbing. It is hurtful. Reading advice? Check out Phil Deloria’s “Playing Indians” or “Indians in Unexpected Places” to understand how you’re trying to ascribe a fraught and offensive cultural sound-byte to thousands of tribes with incredible diversity.

If you have to be a Native American woman for some reason (as in…your child’s school is making them despite your incredible protests), consider Sacagawea but do not, under any circumstances, wear weird headdresses, face paint, or other things you think suggests a tribal affiliation if your child is not Native themselves. If people are confused about who she is, great! An opportunity for her to share what she’s learned. Sacagawea was a Lemhi Shoshone woman who served as the guide and interpreter for Lewis and Clark throughout the Western U.S. Why is she awesome? Native women were the cultural brokers of the U.S. West. They used complex marriage lines to form alliances and build economic networks Native women in the U.S. West could travel great distances into territories men could not and therefore had unique language and land knowledge. Oh, and did I mention she basically walked across the country with Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery carrying her baby boy?

If your child has to be Pocahontas (again, I don’t know why they would ever need to be?), teach her the facts. Pocahontas was a member of the Powhatan tribe who lived in Virginia, but she died in England. Pocahontas was never married to John Smith; she was married to John Rolfe. In fact, John Smith most likely misinterpreted a scripted tribal adoption ceremony in which he was symbolically ‘killed’ by the tribe and ‘reborn’ as a member. In his True Travels he tells a near-identical story about being captured in 1602 by Turks. Pocahontas does not enter his narrative until a letter he wrote to Queen Anne in 1616 when Pocahontas was to visit England. While you’re at it, consider learning about other native leaders, artists, athletes, and martyrs Jim Thorpe, Maria TallChief, Black Elk, John Ross, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Will Rogers, Pontiac, Geronimo, Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Black Hawk, Vine Deloria, Joy Harjo, Charles Eastman, and Sequoyah. Native Americans! They have names! They have histories! They’ve transformed the American cultural landscape in astounding ways!

The Geisha: Instead of reifying more cultural stereotypes about silent, submissive, but hypersexual anonymous Asian women, go for a sexy, smart, and talented woman who fought those very stereotypes like Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star. If you want to learn about the complex and disturbing history of Yellowface, check out Krystyn R. Moon’s book.

Have a doctor’s costume? Transform it into Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine or Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her research in radioactivity.

The Witch: With this classic, you sort of have no choice but to look to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693 for inspiration. In 1692, more than 140 people were named witches during the trials, but for specific women who were accused of witchcraft in Salem, look into Tituba (the accused slave), Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth and John Proctor, and Dorcas Good (don’t you feel bad for Dorcas? First, she gets that name and then she is tried for witchcraft by Puritans).

Four contestants of the Halloween Slick Chick beauty contest in Anaheim, Calif., 1947.
Four contestants of the Halloween Slick Chick beauty contest in Anaheim, Calif., 1947. Ahhh! Don’t do this crap!


Military costumes are huge in ‘merica, but sometimes you need to think critically about the historical implications of your outfit. Just ask Prince Harry how his Nazi costume went over in Great Britain. To spice up a military outfit, own your story!  Love World War II military costumes? Go as John F. Kennedy with his infamous PT-109 coconut. Looking for African American costume inspirations? Consider war hero Dorrie Miller or Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (Tuskegee Airmen turned Air Force General). Want to engage in a little historical research? Use the incredibly easy to use military databases on Ancestry.com to recreate the story and costume of someone who served in your own family. Love the ‘We Can Do It!’ attitude of Rosie the Riveter? Check out the Rosie the Riveter Oral History Project and learn about the contributions of a specific woman with a real name who mobilized the home front effort. Also, look into women throughout American history who actually served undercover in combat. One of the first instances was Deborah Sampson’s gender-bending 17-month service in the American Revolutionary War. And, in case you somehow didn’t know, dressing up as a Confederate soldier–the uniform, the flag, the accessories–are all symbols of racial terror to African Americans. Do not subject your neighbors, classmates, or people in your community to this kind of trauma.

Love the Civil War? Best to avoid anything Confederate unless you are ironically Jefferson Davis in drag the day he was captured. Opt instead for Ulysses S. Grant (you know you love saying ‘Ulysses’) or the 54th Union regiment that inspired the movie Glory. If you’re a ‘creative type’ Civil War buff, consider Civil War photographer Mathew Brady (fake hipster mustaches a plenty).

For the truly inspiring, consider Robert Smalls an enslaved African American who commandeered the confederate military transport the CSS Planter, sailed to a wharf to rescue his family from slavery, then sailed to the Confederate blockade hoisting a white flag. Upon arrival to the Union line he handed over a codebook full of Confederate secret signals, became a captain for the Union, and then later was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction. No big deal.

For the ladies who love a good romp through Civil War trivia, drop the fictional Scarlet O’Hara (no one can walk through a party in hoop skirts anyways). Consider a radical abolitionist like Lydia Maria Child or Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. Wedded to the sexy nurse costume? Go with Clara Barton. She ran the Office of Missing Soldiers in DC and founded the American Red Cross. She was never married but had a spicy affair with a married officer, so that’s juicy.

The slave revolters: Django outfits are popular thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster hit. If you want to get more historically accurate with slave uprisings, meet Toussaint Louverture, the man behind the largest successful slave revolt in history. He transformed San Domingue into Haiti, the second democratic republic in the Western Hemisphere. To Thomas Jefferson and the majority of plantation owners across the United States and the Caribbean, Toussaint Louverture’s ideas, political leadership, and military success made him the scariest man alive.

"Halloween visitors with the President, 31 October 1963" US President John F. Kennedy with his two children in Halloween costumes. President Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., Caroline Kennedy. White House, Oval Office.
“Halloween visitors with the President, 31 October 1963” US President John F. Kennedy with his two children in Halloween costumes. President Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., Caroline Kennedy. White House, Oval Office.


In conclusion, to have a very happy and historical Halloween, follow these simple rules:

  1. Know your costume’s story and have fun digging into research.
  2. All “Should I Wear Blackface on Halloween?” flowcharts lead to “NO!”
  3. All “Should I Be a Sexy Indian” or “Should I Be a Nazi” costume quandaries = “SMH! HELL NO!”
  4. Accents, huge mustaches, beehives, fake jewelry, and funky vintage accessories are encouraged.
  5. Although beaver pelts and buffalo hides ran the U.S. West economy for large chunks of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, you wear fur in 2013 at your own risk of being flour bombed Kim Kardashian style.
  6. History is always sexy! You just have to look in the banned book section and bypass nineteenth-century obscenity laws to find true juicy inspiration.

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