Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007

Vintage Halloween decorations: cute and collectable

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Each Halloween, friends come over to Diane Beverly’s Bethesda home to see her vintage masks, black cats, pumpkins and witches.
Jeff West is Mr. Good Taste when it comes to arranging proper English furnishings for Kellogg Collection’s five stores. But get said stylist talking about Oct. 31 and suddenly he’s just another crazy collector confiscating any and every vintage Halloween skeleton, witch and pumpkin he can find. West may enjoy anything vintage Halloween but he covets die cuts, which are paper decorations created using a die or cutting tool.

In fact, this Chevy Chase designer blames his passion for high-end English home furnishings on the many years he spent decorating for Halloween. This mania began at age 5, when he and his dad came home from a haircut and his mom had decorated the house up for Halloween.

‘‘I was thrilled and then hooked,” he recalls.

Taking over Mom’s job, he became known in his Riverdale, neighborhood for the impressive Halloween motifs he attached to the family’s front picture window. Once the staff at his elementary school learned of his talents, they were begging for his design services.

West may have liked the whole evening of candy and costumes, but it wasn’t until he was 15 that he started thinking old. While planning a Halloween party, a friend’s grandmother gave him a box of vintage decorations. Opening the box, he swooned; it was filled with die cut witches, cats and skeletons from the 1940s and ’50s printed by the still thriving Beistle Company. Soon he was searching for old paper products at flea markets. Now when he needs a fix, he types in ebay.com.

West admits these decorations don’t exactly blend with his other obsession: English porcelain, and mixing them will never happen. Instead, his vintage Halloween decorations must stay safely stored in plastic bins at his beach house, and taken out for a few hours each Halloween.He’s not the only one bonkers for old Halloween decorations. My friend Diane Beverly’s attic is loaded to the rafters with the vintage and antique Halloween paraphernalia she has collected for some 30 years. Beverly still remembers her first vintage Halloween purchase: two springy clay scorpions hanging from rubbery strings. Later, she started buying composite witches, cats and pumpkins, moving on to metal tambourines, noisemakers and a plethora of candles depicting ghosts and green goblins. She vividly recalls the decorations that got away. It was at least a decade ago when we were hurrying to an estate sale when we stopped to stare. A woman sauntered out of the tidy Chevy Chase colonial carrying a box brimming with what appeared to be ancient Halloween masks, horns and a tambourine. Beverly still aches at the memory.

But lucky for her, perfection isn’t important: Once while perusing an estate sale, she found a torn up paper scarecrow with an accordion style corn stocks stashed near a trashcan. She carefully restored this throwaway, calling these decorations an ‘‘ephemeral piece of history.”

And that may be the beauty of Halloween objects. Unlike Christmas decorations, which people often consider sacred family heirlooms, in the past, most Halloween decorations were tossed in the trash or haphazardly stored away.

And this scarcity makes old Halloween decorations at times pricier and more desirable than many Christmas items, notes Anna Deery, owner of the estate sale business Great Expectations. Rooting through people’s estates, she says it is rare to see Halloween decorations.

‘‘But when it comes up, it gets sold immediately,” she points out. But, she continues, with so many ‘‘reproductions of reproductions of reproductions, people are skeptical and only real collectors can tell if the Halloween collectibles are really old.”West insists he can tell ‘‘right away,” since the new ones look ‘‘airbrushed.”

But why does this high-end designer care about kitschy cardboard cutouts?

‘‘The old Halloween decorations bring out the little kid in me. These die cuts are like old friends,” he explains.

This old friend actually isn’t so elderly. Americans made Halloween uniquely their own after it came across the Atlantic as a celebration of All Saints Day.People wanted to celebrate autumn and by the 1900s, were purchasing holiday books, postcards and decorations. At first, Halloween was designed for adults, with many early decorations seriously frightening, although they can’t match items available these days.

Now with adults embracing the holiday again, Halloween has become ‘‘far too gory, bloody skulls rotting corpses. It is hell incarnate,” West notes.

He may be right, but someday, another well-heeled designer is likely to recall his own childhood and desperately embark upon a search for a Freddy Krueger mask.