In August of 1905 author Albert Neely Hall published his very helpful handbook, The Boy Craftsman: Practical and Profitable Ideas for a Boy’s Leisure Time. I can’t find a lot of information about Hall except that he was born in 1883, he wrote a number of books about handicrafts for both boys and girls, and he was probably not a guy I would have hired to babysit.
His book for boys with too much time on their hands in some ways reads a bit like a Boy Scout manual with instruction about tool safety, clubhouse building, photography, and animal trapping. It includes suggestions for ways boys can use their time to earn a little cash by shoveling snow, making simple home repairs, and editing and printing a neighborhood newspaper.
It also provides helpful tips for how your average, rambunctious early 20th century boy can celebrate the 4th of July by making his own pyrotechnics. To be fair, Hall does recommend against designing one’s own Roman candle because that could be dangerous. Instead, he suggests a handy method of lighting firecrackers suspended from a kite and a grand finale involving a kerosene-soaked board stuffed with firecrackers. Because safety is important.
But it’s the section on Halloween that has me most concerned today. After a brief introduction about the history of Halloween which, as a sort of history blogger who does consistently shoddy research, I can safely say is pretty shoddy, it begins: “This is the only evening on which a boy can feel free to play pranks outdoors without danger of being ‘pinched.’”
Hall goes on to list such pranks as scaring passers-by, ding-dong ditching, carrying off neighbors’ gates, and piling garbage in front of doors. It’s worth it, he says, because even if he catches some heat, “the punishment is nothing compared with the sport the pranks have furnished him.” He then presents plans for building and pulling off pranks that will both frighten and enrage your neighbor.
I realize that an occasional prank has long been associated with our spookiest holiday, but for those of us who stock the good candy and hand it out without question to six-foot-tall ghosts, it’s not usually much of a problem. And usually, there’s lots of more innocent fun, of the variety Albert Neely Hall would certainly not approve, to go around and keep kids with too much time on their hands from engaging in pranks that, despite claims to the contrary, put them in danger of getting pinched.
But now that it’s October and my neighborhood is sprouting Styrofoam gravestones, the pumpkins are wearing toothy grins, and Halloween is looming, I find myself wondering about what the holiday might look like this year.
A lot of municipalities are planning to cancel trick-or-treating amid concerns of spreading Covid-19, clubs and churches are avoiding the large gatherings encouraged by trunk-or-treating, and even haunted houses are inflicting social distance rules on their ghouls, goblins, and chain-saw-wielding mass murderers, effectively placing their guests inside a decidedly not scary safety bubble with a six-foot radius.
I’m not suggesting that these are bad ideas. I just wonder, as I encounter advertisements touting thoroughly sanitized blood and guts and socially distant zombies at the local Townhouse of Terror, if the restrictions and strangeness of the holiday will encourage a return to the pranks of the past that probably gave rise to many of the less harmful alternative activities in the first place.
What I do know is that when Albert Neely Hall wrote his book he was in his very early twenties and probably didn’t have children of his own, or at least not ones old enough to celebrate Halloween by terrorizing others. As the mother of a couple of boys, I can assure you (and my neighbors) that in my house the sport would most certainly not be worth the punishment.