Halloween in 1940s Pittsburgh through the Lens of Teenie Harris

The caption of this photograph published in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper on November 8, 1941 reads: “Inclement Weather forced cancellation of outdoor celebrations Halloween night but the Bedford Dwellings party, sponsored by the Parents Commission and the Tenants Council, attracted over 450 costumed kiddies from the Hill area. This was the largest party held in the Dwellings. The above picture shows part of the huge youthful gathering.”

Bedford Dwellings was among the country’s first housing projects. Built over the former sites of Greenlee Field and Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in the Hill District, it offered safe affordable housing with heat, plumbing, and electricity—necessities that were sometimes lacking from other slum landlord-owned neighborhood buildings. It was also home to a large immigrant population—both African Americans coming up from the South and Europeans seeking jobs in the area industries. In 1941, the buildings were still nearly brand-new and according to the Pittsburgh Courier, out of 800 residents, nearly 400 were children. A large Halloween celebration was planned for them, but the weather did not cooperate—an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that ran on November 1st, stated: “Maybe the witches were riding fire hoses instead of broomsticks, for during the afternoon and evening more than a half inch of rain fell…”

Though the country was just a few months away from entering World War II, the festive spirit still seemed high. Pittsburgh’s shops advertised fresh walnuts and dates, peanut brittle, butter creams, orange and black jelly drops, Winesap apples, spiced donuts and cider for Halloween celebrations.  And for $1.25, you could purchase a costume of your favorite animal—panther, lion, zebra, panda, leopard; storybook character—Peter Rabbit or Little Red Hen; or express your patriotism by donning an Uncle Sam suit from one of the Downtown department stores.

Charles “Teenie” Harris, Children wearing Halloween costumes at Bedford Dwellings, October 31, 1941, black and white: Agfa Safety Film, Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund, 2001.35.6426 © 2006 Teenie Harris Archive.
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Children wearing Halloween costumes at Bedford Dwellings, October 31, 1941. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

But many children, especially in the Hill District, created their own costumes from what could be found at home—a parent’s threadbare jacket could turn one into a tramp or hobo, and a scarf could transform a child into Little Red Riding Hood, a comic book superhero, or an ethnic fashion that tied a child to her immigrant past or took her to a distant continent (sometimes also in a derogatory manner). Simple gauze masks could be purchased for a few cents, possibly in a corner shop, and for a little bit more, a one-piece polished cotton suit to step in from behind to become a genie, clown, or a peculiar combination of Cat in a Hat and Cat and the Fiddle. Pirates, caped avengers, and ghoulish sorts seen then are still just as popular today, but cowboys and girls reflect the times of the Lone Ranger and western acts in traveling circuses.

Amazingly, Teenie Harris captured them during what was most likely the only still seconds of that night.