|By Larry LeMasters
When I was in the first grade at Central Park Grade School in Omaha, I wore a Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company’s “Bugs Bunny” costume for Halloween. My Bugs costume was gray with pink ears, and it completely covered me. As the entire school marched around the block in costume, my classmates continually pulled aside my Bugs Bunny mask to see who was hiding under it. By the time I got home, both the mask and drape body were torn, but I still wore the costume that night for trick-o-treating. I wish I still owned that Bugs Bunny costume. In good shape, it is worth $150 today.
Halloween has changed over the years, but October 31st still excites children of all ages. For us older children, Halloween is a time to attend costume parties and buy bags of candy for trick-o-treaters. But Halloween is also a time of nostalgic remembrance.
Most Baby Boomers fondly remember going trick-o-treating on Halloween, wearing costumes either made by mom or by one of the three “big” Halloween costume manufacturers of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s — Halco, Ben Cooper, or Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company. Without a doubt, probably due to my early Bugs Bunny costume, Collegeville Halloween costumes have always been my favorites.
Believe it or not, the multi-million dollar industry of manufacturing Halloween costumes has been around for less than 100 years, because American corporations didn’t actually start manufacturing Halloween costumes until the 1920s.
Collegeville of Collegeville, Pa. began around 1909 as a flag making company. By the late 1920s, Collegeville seamstresses were sewing Halloween costumes too. Using left over flag material to make costumes kept Collegeville Flag Company in full production long after the July 4th season ended each year. Collegeville used July, August, and September to turn out tens of thousands of Halloween masks, making the ghoulie masks and capes big business.
Collegeville historians still argue over what character (Santa Claus or Uncle Sam) was the first Collegeville Halloween costume. Everyone knows it had to be one of these two since the only colors originally used by Collegeville were red, white, and blue.
Every costume Collegeville created (whether a cartoon character, monster, or super hero) consisted of a plastic mask (held in place over a child’s eyes by a thin rubber band wrapped around the head) and a silk-screened cloth cape or body that pulled over the head and tied at the back of the neck.
Around 1931, Collegeville moved into children’s Halloween costumes when it licensed the rights of Hopalong Cassidy and Mortimer Snerd, a dummy character for ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Licensing rights gave companies exclusive rights to a character’s image, so companies fought each other for these licensing rights.
Some of Collegeville’s earliest costumes are labeled “Masquerade Costume” and were intended as adult costumes since adult Halloween parties remained popular through the 1930s.
By the end of World War II and the start of the Baby Boomer generation, Halloween became a night of “tricks-o-treats” where children roamed in frightening, creepy, or playful costumes, many of them made by Collegeville.
In the mid-1950s, marketing companies, eager to jump on the Halloween bandwagon, acknowledged the growing demand for store-bought costumes, and companies, such as Collegeville, began turning out a witch’s pot full of vampires, ghosts, cartoon character, presidential, and, yes, witchy costumes.
Collegeville added a line of makeup and makeup accessories in 1991, changing its name to “Collegeville/Imagineering.” And in 1996, Rubies Costume Company purchased Collegeville.
It wasn’t until after the war, however, that Halloween costume manufacturing became big business. The rise of television in the 1950s (and the popularity of children TV shows such as Superman, Zorro, and Davy Crockett) and the rise of newspaper cartoon characters contributed to the cause. Collegeville obtained the licenses to television and cartoon characters, and began mass producing inexpensive representations of them in costume form for less than $3 each. That amounts to about $12 per costume today. Collegeville distinguished itself with speed: Faster than a speeding bullet, Collegeville would buy licensing rights, produce costumes and get them onto store shelves, which opened a whole new world of costuming for children.
Department stores, such as Sears, Montgomery Ward’s, and Five & Dive stores, such as Kresges and Woolworths, eagerly competed to sell children’s Halloween costumes. Each year, from roughly 1950 – 1970, millions of dollars were spent on Halloween items. The National Retail Foundation (NRF) reported that Americans will spend $8.4 billion on Halloween in 2018. According to the NRF, 67% of Halloween enthusiasts — from kids to Baby Boomer geezers like myself — intend to spend an estimated $83 each on Halloween costumes this year.
Collectors first seriously started looking at children’s Halloween costumes as collectible items around 1990. By then, for some costumes, it was already too late. Most Halloween costumes have always been “throwaways” since each year children either outgrew their old costumes or simply wanted to be more “cool” than the old costume allowed them to be. Many fabulous Halloween costumes ended up on garbage dumps, such as my Bugs Bunny costume.