Start Collecting Vintage Halloween Die Cuts
It's a big hobbyist market that seems to be ever expanding as attics and basements of both homes and old stores are cleaned out: die cut Halloween decorations from the 1900s and beyond. These decorations were sold anywhere party goods could be purchased and of course, were inexpensive and made to be hung on walls, from ceilings or anything else that could use a touch of fright.
Jumping right into 100 or so years of Halloween paper goods can be overwhelming at first. Here's some suggestions on getting your footing for the basics of vintage Halloween decorations.
Country of Origin
Most old paper products were made in either the United States of America or Germany. Some die cuts will be marked or stamped with the country of origin, but many will not. While not a 100% accurate method of determining the production country, generally American produced decorations have only slight embossing or none at all, producing a flat product. The German paper hangings, on the other hand, tend to be heavily embossed.
There are a handful of companies that produced die cut cardboard decorations, and not only for Halloween, but also Christmas, St. Patrick's Day and Easter. Probably the most well-known and easily identifiable of those companies would be the Beistle Company of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. It's interesting to note that Beistle is not only still in the same business they have always been in, but they also had the good sense of preservation to save a sample of every product they have made, going back to the 1920s. This results in a stunning archive of everything from common pieces to items that exist today only inside the Beistle vault.
Dennison of Framingham, Massachusetts is maybe the second most well-known behind Beistle, and a name you'll no doubt identify with paper products still, having become Avery Dennison in 1990. Dennison was also churning out beautiful works of art at the same time Beistle was, alongside a much sought after product known as Bogie Books.
H.E. Luhrs is a name you may find stamped on a paper die cut, and you'd be in a majority of people new to collecting to assume it is or was an independent company. In fact, H.E. Luhrs is also the Beistle company. H.E. Luhrs was the son-in-law to Beistle's founder Martin Luther Beistle, and would eventually become president. Loosely translated? Anything Luhrs is a Beistle.
A third producer of Halloween paper decorations is the Gibson Art Company of Cincinnati, Ohio. Gibson provided plenty of appealing die cut items also dating back to the 1920s.
Those are your big three American brands. Chances are if an item was not produced by one of the three companies above, it is a German export.
You will find other companies that produced decorations later on, including Hallmark, which produced this set below from the 1970's.
Once you get into collecting, you'll be surprised at quickly you can not only differentiate die cuts by brand with a glance but also how easy it is to guess at the era they are from. Typical fodder for cardboard décor was:
- black cats
- jointed and non-jointed skeletons and skeleton cats
- jack o lanterns without triangular eyes
- a moon with or without a screeching cat
- witches on brooms
- an occasional scarecrow and of course,
- the devil himself.
Early colors stuck to orange, black, green and yellow. On embossed German die cuts, details are actually hand painted on. The tone of the decoration is steered directly by the color intensity and design itself. Beistle, Dennison and Gibson had real artists create these pieces, and when you consider that, you will feel an immense appreciation for them. There are genuinely frightening items (An old Beistle ghost springs to mind, with its pointy "ears" seeming so unnatural) and there are classic "goofy" images, like a sly winking feline wearing a bow tie and a monocle or a pumpkin with smooth, black pupils donning a banded top hat.
What to collect is left completely to preference. What reaches out and grabs you the most? Embossed, glazed, jointed, honeycomb fan and even flocked (slightly "fuzzy") make collecting fun, exciting and nearly endless.
Buying your First Die Cut
...is a thrilling experience indeed. If you see it, gleaming at you, and you get a rush, don't bother looking back, up or down, because you're going to be hooked.
And really, your die cut collection doesn't have to consist wholly of items that are 80 or 90 years old. There are plenty of pieces that scream the decade they're from and do it well. There are pieces from the 1950s and 1960s that give off a period-appropriate vibe, and that's what makes them work so well.
If you haven't checked yet, eBay is a great place to see what's out there. Completed listings are even better, as you will be able to see what sold and what it sold for. Familiarize yourself with the artwork of each company, notice how they used to same artwork for many years at a time, with colors changed, or images inverted. Grow to appreciate pieces for what they are and arm yourself with knowledge of value. If you want a specific piece, keep an eye out for it. Anything valuable on the internet will most likely hit a high asking price, this is when estate sales and auctions become your friend.
Auctions? Estate Sales?
Yes, both. People who love Halloween and decorating for holidays have a box full of old, authentic things. They will probably have a bent corner, someone wrote something on the back and I can almost guarantee there will be tape residue older than you are, but they still exist and generally, they can be purchased on the cheap. Knowing the value, age and manufacturer will aid you in haggling as well. Obviously, you won't want to break the bank as a newbie collector. If you ever don't feel comfortable with a price, your best bet is to walk away.
Storage and Care
Now that you own one or many cardboard Halloween pieces, you can probably see how fragile some of them are. Decades of being folded up, displayed and touched will take its toll, and this is why in general, old paper goods will have and retain more value than other related Halloween trinkets, such as plastics.
You want to keep them dry. Don't stack them and if you can, keep them within acid-free mylar. To keep the color as true as you can, darkness is your best option. This doesn't automatically mean basement or attic. Variables in temperature and humidity can also be a killer, so store with those things in mind.
A valuable piece or a die cut from your childhood are both something you're supposed to enjoy, so do pick up older and newer common pieces.
And speaking of having some pieces you can actually look at, you can really have the best of both worlds, at least when it comes to a growing number of Beistle items. Remember how I said they archived everything? In the last few years, they've begun printing reproductions, faithful to the whimsical cardboard offerings of those available to our grandparents and great grandparents. At the time this article was written, they are the only company giving reproductions a try. It would be interesting to see if any Dennison or Gibson original artworks are still sealed up somewhere, sleeping through dozens of Halloweens come and gone.