Hungry History

The Halloween Pumpkin: An American History

By Stephanie Butler
pumpkins

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“We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.”

Those lines, from a poem written by a Massachusetts settler in the 1630s, seem particularly appropriate at this time of year. Halloween is nearly here, so grocery stores, coffee shops and bakeries fill with pumpkin-flavored treats, from muffins to lattes to ravioli.

Modern Halloween comes from the Irish festival Samhain, an occasion that marked the passage from the summer harvest season to the dark of winter. Tradition dictated huge bonfires be built in fields, and it was believed that fairy spirits lurked in the shadows. To distract these spirits from settling into houses and farms, people would carve rudimentary faces into large turnips, and set candles inside. The turnip lanterns would rest along roadways and next to gates, to both light the way for travelers and caution any passing fairies against invading.

The celebration of Halloween in America didn’t take off until waves of immigrants from Ireland and Scotland arrived in the mid-1800s. Pumpkins are native to North America, so while it’s not known exactly when the first pumpkin was carved and lit, the first mention of pumpkins jack o’lanterns comes at around the same time. In 1866, the children’s magazine “Harper’s Young People” reported that “a great sacrifice of pumpkins” had been made that for that year’s Halloween celebrations. Pumpkin carving grew more and more popular as the years went on. By the 1920s, Halloween had been embraced throughout the United States. Parties and costumes became the norm, and “trick or treating” soon followed in the mid-1930s.

As pumpkin carving grew into a multi-million dollar industry, American farmers began to examine the specific types of pumpkins they grew, and bred new lines of squash specifically for carving. Massachusetts farmer John Howden developed the Howden pumpkin in the 1960s, and it is still the most popular carving pumpkin in America. However, the very things that make the Howden perfect for Halloween (thick stem, shallow ribs, thin flesh in relation to size) make it less than ideal for eating. Meanwhile, varieties like the Sugar Pie, Kabocha, and Carnival make for better eating, and are enjoying a renaissance at farmers’ markets and tables across the country.

Categories: Halloween, Holidays