I love researching the history of the Victorian Era—and I happen to love parties and Halloween, too.
How to Throw a Victorian Era Halloween Party
Hosting a Victorian Halloween party is a great way to delve into your creative side and have fun exploring old-fashioned pastimes. In this article, we'll explore some of the history of the Victorian Era and the cultural origins of popular customs of the day, as well as discover some creative ways to bring the past alive in your own home.
In This Article
- Victorian Halloween Traditions
- Victorian Era Decoration Ideas
- Victorian Color Schemes for Entertaining
- Decorating Supplies
- Where to Buy Victorian Halloween Decor
- Victorian Dishes, Drinks, and Treats
- Set the Mood With Music
- Victorian Costumes
- Victorian Era Games and Activities
Victorian Halloween Traditions
The "Victorian Era" is named, and then covers, the time period that Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain, from 1837 to 1901.
Holidays and parties were an important part of the passing years for people of all classes. From harvest celebrations in rural settings to grand parties in the sprawling urban cities, holiday traditions were welcomed by all.
In parts of the United States—mainly New England and the Deep South—cultural influences from Great Britain had a strong influence on the newly growing middle classes of America. The Victorian middle class became enthralled with the quaint traditions of the Old World after observing the customs of the newly arrived Irish and Scottish immigrants in the mid 19th century.
Not all celebrations were considered tasteful or socially appropriate, though. For example, elements of the pagan celebrations of Samhain and the old spiritual rituals of All Hallow's Eve were considered too unruly; instead, the Victorians set about refining the holidays from a day of the dead to a day of harvest celebrations and lighthearted matchmaking. Families began hosting private parties for children and young unmarried adults. The chief aim was entertainment and divining one's future.
While the Victorians refined many aspects of All Hallow's Eve, they conversely had an intense interest in spiritualism and the supernatural. Holding seances and telling ghost stories were a popular form of entertainment all year round, but especially enjoyable on Halloween.
Victorian Era Decoration Ideas
Start decorating your Victorian party by adding a few everyday Victorian Era housewares. This will add a special authenticity to your party.
From the moment your guests enter your house they should feel as if they have passed through a veil to a time long hence gone by. In order to achieve this, consider some of the following: What area will you be decorating? How many rooms? This is the first thing to decide.
Keep in mind that the more space you plan to occupy during your party, the more time and money you will need to spend preparing. Try to keep the areas your guests will occupy as cohesively decorated as possible, and block off areas not meant for guests with dark and thick curtains, or harvest decorations. Remember, sometimes less is more!
Victorian style dinnerware, silverware, candelabras, punch bowls, lace, and napkins are excellent and often easy-to-find additions. If you have the time and capability, try embroidering a Halloween motif on a set of cloth napkins. If you don't have the time, you can also buy them off of sites like Etsy, in stores, or for a more economical option, you can buy Halloween themed paper napkins.
- Lace (table runners, placemats)
- Patterned Chinaware
- Crystal Goblets (glass or plastic)
- Crystal Punch Bowl (glass or plastic)
- Embroidered Cloth Napkins (or Halloween-themed paper napkins)
- Candles (all shapes, types, and sizes—strands of mini lights may do as well)
Paper and Fabric Silhouettes
The Victorians were the ones to popularize the images now associated with Halloween such as black cats, bats, witches, devils, ghosts and jack-o-lanterns. Using fabric and paper, they embellished tablecloths with silhouettes of black cats and bats and put paper devils and witches in windows.
- Wall Decorations
- Hanging Decorations
- Seating Cards
- Tablecloth (line the skirt of the tablecloth with a pattern of silhouettes)
- Window Decorations
Elaborate, harvest centerpieces were incorporated, as well as harvest decorations of leaves, flowers, and corn pinned to walls and hanging from ceilings. Grinning, twinkling jack-o-lanterns lined up stairways, windowsills, and walkways. Once you have the foundation of Victorian pieces set up, add these harvest and Halloween themed decorations as a final touch.
- Wall Sconces
- Hanging Decorations
- Windowsill Displays
- Fireplace Displays
The Victorian hostess always included her much-loved flowers when decorating for any event. In keeping with the Victorian obsession for attention to detail and etiquette, flowers were of great importance and were even given special meanings. Depending on the specific species and/or color of the flower and the particular arrangement, the meanings could range between that of joy and celebration, to that of sorrow and mourning.
Read More From Holidappy
A rather macabre example is to arrange a vase of red and white flowers, as this would have been seen as an omen that a death would soon follow. You can also use oranges, yellows, autumn-colored leaves, and purples in your arrangements as well. Whatever flowers you choose will make beautiful accents and can easily be added to any harvest-themed decoration.
Candles or String Lights
Lastly, adding candles as the primary lighting source will enhance the spooky, otherworldly mood of the party. The more candles the better! Set them around the room, on tables, on mantle-pieces, on windowsills, and in front of mirrors.
If you don't have the money to buy a couple dozen candles, go ahead and buy a couple strings of mini-lights (orange and purple work the best) and strategically place them around the room. They emit a surprising amount of light, and will create a similar, old-timey effect as candles.
Victorian Color Schemes for Entertaining
Depending on the mood you want to set, picking a color scheme can aid you in setting the mood of your party. Brighter colors create a more jolly and festive atmosphere of lightheartedness that the Victorians often made of their Halloween parties. These can be especially appropriate for younger partygoers. Colors in the middle of the spectrum will give a more traditional, harvest festival theme to your party. Not too bright, not too dark, they are quintessential for throwing a party with divination games and bobbing for apples. The darker end of the spectrum delves into the more macabre side of the Victorian Era. Those prone to exploring the world beyond, through the aid of a medium, or the popular Gothic novel.
What Colors to Use
Colors were popular in the Victorian Era, so whatever mood you intend to set, make sure you incorporate at least a few colors.
- Gold and silver was also used for fine details and embellishments.
The Victorians decorated for their parties by adding brightly-colored harvest decorations and newly incorporated Halloween images such as cats, ghosts, devils, witches, and jack-o-lanterns to everyday housewares.
Once you know what rooms or areas you are decorating (and how you'll decorate them), start making a list of the supplies you will need for each designated space. The following is a chart of suggested supplies to pick up or find about your house or a friend's house.
|Paper||Fabric||Harvest Items||Crafting Tools and Supplies||Embellishments|
Bales of hay
Victorian punch bowl
Yards of fabric
Old black and white photos
Discount bin fabric
Sheets of paper
Medium-sized wooden/metal/plastic tub (for apple bobbing)
Rolls of paper
Fake leaves and flowers
Real leaves and flowers
Paint brush/paint sponge
Where to Find Victorian Halloween Decor
There are a variety of options to choose from when decorating with a Victorian flair for Halloween. You can make it as expensive or inexpensive as you like.
- Thrift Stores: Great places to find cheap to moderately priced decorating materials are your local thrift stores such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, flea markets, or a local second-hand store.
- Yard Sales: If you plan ahead during the summer months, take a look at yard sales for Victorian style; you can find laces, dishware, bowls, mirrors, and candle holders.
- Craft Stores: You can also find discounted fabrics—and lots of other crafting materials—at fabric and craft stores. Starting in September, many of these stores will start to sell Halloween merchandise at a discounted price, and there are often Victorian-inspired decorations.
- Party Stores: Another option for finding decorations is at party stores like Party City and Halloween Express.
- Friends and Family: Also, it never hurts to ask friends and family if they have something on your list that you can borrow.
Victorian Dishes, Drinks, and Treats
Now that you have decked your Halloween party out in Victorian fashion, it is time to plan the rest of your soiree. Decorating is not the only way to delve into creating a truly memorable experience for your guests.
Most Victorian Halloween parties started off the merry-making with the Dame Halloween (female hostess) serving a Barmbrack Cake. This is a fruit cake baked with 5 hidden objects that foretold the fortunes of those who found them.
Also consider serving some popular dishes, deserts, and drinks that were favorites among the Victorians. Whether you will be serving alcohol or not, there are many fun and tasty drinks to serve your guests, such as: punches, champagne, wines, cocktails, and of course the most Victorian beverage of all, tea!
If you are sitting down to a formal dinner, treat your guests to a variety of food, and if you're especially eager, try serving several courses. Have fun discovering some new dishes and delving into the indulgent treats of the Victorians. For more ideas, recipes, and baking tips, check out the links below!
- Meats (partridge, pigeon, chicken, ham, or fish)
- Soups (eel, broth soups, turnip soup, pea soup)
- Vegetable Platters (olives, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash)
- Salads (lobster salad, green bean salad, tomato salad, hot potato salad)
- The Cock Tail
- Mint Juleps
- The Sherry Cobbler
- Hot Apple Cider
- Hot Chocolate
Treats and Desserts
- Barmbrack Cake (fruit cake with five hidden objects)
- Ice Cream
- Cakes and Pastries
- Saltwater Taffy
- Apple and/or Pumpkin Pie
Victorian Food and Beverage Recipes
- Cocktail Hour: Drink What Dickens Drank (Four Pounds Flour)
- 1890s Victorian Kitchen
- Victorian Pride - History of Victorian Food in America
- The Victorian Pantry, Authentic Vintage Recipies
Set the Mood With Music
After spending all that time on the decorations, food, and entertainment, it would be a shame for the party to miss a beat by not having the right music. The vast array of music available from the Victorian period will help keep your party festive. While there really is no official Halloween music, there are certainly different songs that will foster jolly, somber, or spooky atmospheres. If you are lucky enough to own a piano (and know how to play) learning a few songs will be a welcome surprise to your guests. Otherwise, you can always find music on CDs, the internet, and records. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Caplet, The Masque of the Red Death
- Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor
- Ligeti, Requiem
- Schoenberg, Erwartung
- Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique
- Debussy, Arabesque I/Clair de Lune
- Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain
Another song that was very popular during the Victorian Era was a traditional ballad from England and Scotland, Barbara Allen. Though not necessarily eerie, it is appropriate for Halloween as it ends with two dead "lovers".
The Victorians would often alter their everyday clothing, adding props or embellishments, to create a costume.
Popular Costumes of the Time
The most popular costumes appear to have been witches and ghosts. Other costumes that appear on postcards and in pictures of the time include:
- different versions of Little Bo-Peep or Mother Goose
- harlequins and clowns
Theme and Concept Costumes From the Era
Other costumes seem to have been more elaborate, portraying themes, concepts and animals.
- Women's dresses were stenciled with different objects to portray a deck of cards, the Queen of Hearts, a sewing kit, or a jewelry box.
- Headdress pieces were often incorporated into many of the costumes, including pointed hats, bat ears, devil horns, and other unique pieces to help in the portrayal of concept costumes.
- The more elaborate costumes often incorporated full head masks made of fabric, animal skins, or plaster.
There are some truly bizarre and rather creepy pictures of costumes from the late Victorian Era, all well worth taking a look at.
Have your guests dress up in Victorian Era costumes! This is a great way to tie in the whole theme of the party. Tell your guests to have fun exploring and interpreting costumes of the Victorian Era, awarding prizes for the most realistic, interesting, bizarre, creative, and scary costumes. The most important thing to remember about dressing up for Halloween is to have fun and be creative!
Victorian Era Games and Activities
Besides eating at parties, the Victorians loved to participate in playful activities, especially on Halloween.
Bobbing for Apples
One popular game that is still played today was bobbing for apples. Hostesses would place apples in a large wooden tub of water or hang apples from the ceiling. In both cases, the player could only use their mouths and teeth to catch the apple, and when bobbing for the hanging apple, they would have their hands tied behind their back.
Parlor games were popular forms of entertainment, charades being a favorite among the Victorians. The charades of the 19th century was a bit more elaborate than is usually thought of today, and had different variations and levels of difficulty. The hostess provided makeshift costumes and props for guests to perform with. When inviting your guests ask them to bring an extra item to two of clothing or props to be used during the party, this will heighten their curiosity and make providing party supplies a little easier for you.
Divination and Fortune Telling
A favorite activity among the girls and young women was divination and fortune-telling games. There are hundreds of variations of different fortune-telling games to play with your guests. One variation that can easily be included in your party is the "Luggie Bowls". To play, set up three bowls: one with clean water, one with soapy water, and one empty. The person playing is blindfolded and the bowl they pick determines their fortune for the coming year. There are variations as to what fortune is given, but one version states that the bowl of water foretells marriage within the year, the soapy water foretells that you will marry an old but wealthy man, and the empty bowl means that you will never marry.
The Victorians had also developed a keen interest in Spiritualism, and many adults would host seances in an attempt to commune with the spirit world. Consider hiring a fortune teller (or Google "palm reading") and have some fun divining your guests' futures. Other items to consider using to divine the future or commune with the spirits are: a crystal ball, tarot cards, or a Ouija board.
Any Halloween party would not be complete without a chilling ghost story told by candlelight. The Victorians loved the ghostly tales from the Old World and incorporated them into their storytelling on Halloween: tales of malignant faeries from Ireland and Scotland, a trickster named Jack trapped between heaven and hell (the origin of jack-o-lanterns), and ghosts who haunted the places they had once roamed. Sitting by the fireplace or in a darkened room lit with candles, take turns telling ghost stories or reading aloud from a Victorian Era book.
A great book to look for is The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, full of eerie tales to share with your guests. There are many great writers to chose from, my personal favorite being J.S. Le Fanu. Laura Silver Bell and The Child That Went With the Fairies will leave guests with a particularly chilling impression.
Look below for links to websites with different Victorian parlor and fortune-telling games, including detailed instructions on how to play them.
Victorian Parlor Games
- The Most Dangerous Games: A Collection Of Halloween Divination Games
Folklore is rife with Halloween divination games and rituals. Many of them are simple to prepare and quick to play, so here, I’ve collected a small selection all in one place. Will you test your luck this Halloween?
- The Victorian School
- Tostenson Brothers Farm - Victorian Parlor Games
Ghost Stories and Supernatural Tales
- Victorian Ghost Stories
A spooky collection of Victorian era ghost stories and links.
- Laura Silver Bell by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
- The Child that Went with the Fairies by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Have a Happy Halloween!
You and your guests will find yourselves delving into the spirit of Halloween garbed in Victorian costume, bobbing for apples, eating and drinking delicious treats, and gathering around in a candle lit room, listening to spine-tingling stories. Best of all, you will all have an incredible Halloween to remember.
Kathy on September 30, 2016:
This is a fantastic article! So many helpful ideas for a great Halloween party!