The jack-o’-lantern is a Halloween icon. The look of this ghastly gourd defines the holiday and much of the imagery surrounding it. But where did jack-o’-lanterns come from? And why do we love to keep carving them year after year?
The origins of the jack-o’-lantern
In the 1600s, British and Irish farmers carved faces into turnips, beets, and potatoes and illuminated them with candles or embers to ward off evil spirits. They put them in windows and front doors in the fall, particularly on the day of the year thought to most blur the boundary between the living and the dead: Halloween. European immigrants brought these beliefs and traditions to the new world, used the pumpkins they had, and eventually, the jack-o’-lantern as we know it was born.
But there is more to this story than a quickly summarized history. To fully understand the jack-o’-lantern, you’ll want to understand the term’s origin.
Where does the phrase “jack-o’-lantern” come from?
The rural Irish started telling a folktale in the 1500s about a man named Stingy Jack who tricked the devil and was forced to walk the earth for eternity, carrying only an ember in a turnip. Any unknown person carrying a lantern was referred to as “jack o’ the lantern” in reference to the story. This name was also given to phosphorescent swamp gas.
You can imagine why an otherworldly flaming glow coming from deep within a marsh would make people think of Stingy Jack carrying his glowing turnip, walking in an endless silence. Though there is no clear connection, you can also imagine why the sight of glowing pumpkins in America might have reminded Irish immigrants of their native folklore.
Jack-o’-lanterns in America
The first mention of a jack-o’-lantern in America comes with the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, published in 1837. In the 1840s, the Irish Potato Famine brought waves of Irish immigrants to America who brought their beliefs and practices with them.
By the mid-1800s, there was a tradition of American children carving faces into pumpkins, lighting them, and using them for pranks. These pranks sometimes involved hiding in the woods or on the side of the road in an attempt to scare passersby into believing they had seen Stingy Jack. These pumpkin lanterns would soon share his name–jack-o’-lanterns.
In 1892, the Mayor of Atlanta’s wife hosted a Halloween party and had several pumpkins carved into jack-o’-lanterns with illuminated candles. By the late 1800s, the origin of the jack-o’-lantern began to transition toward the Halloween decoration we think of today.
In the early 1900s, kids started carrying around what were called “parade lanterns.” These small metal jack-o’-lanterns held a candle and were held during a Halloween parade or while trick-or-treating. Picture the sight of numerous glowing pumpkins bouncing around in the autumn night.
The modern jack-o’-lantern
Until the 1920s, all Halloween decorations and costumes were generally handmade, but that would all change when a Pennsylvania party goods company called Beistle released the first line of mass-produced Halloween decorations. This solidified modern Halloween imagery and the jack-o’-lantern was central to that.
The 1949 Disney cartoon, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, also did a lot to cement the jack-o’-lantern in the cultural mind. One of the first appearances on film, numerous iconic pumpkins would leave huge impressions on our collective Halloween imaginations in the decades that followed.
Nowadays, jack-o’-lanterns are everywhere around Halloween. Some of us take them for granted, while others are obsessively devoted to pumpkin carving. We have reality shows devoted to the art form and NFTs that bring them into the metaverse. No matter what the future holds for the jack-o’-lantern, we can’t imagine Halloween without them.
Show your love for jack-o’-lanterns with some of our favorite items:
Do you carve a jack-o’-lantern every year? Check out our blog for more great pumpkin carving ideas and other bits of Halloween inspiration.