Jack-O-Lanterns: Pumpkins were a thing before “Pumpkin Spice”

Posted on
October 28, 2022

This post is written by Kelvin Ramsey '79, donor of the Kelvin Ramsey Collection of Lantern Slides and Stereoviews.


Pumpkins are squash plants native to America and did not make an appearance in Europe until the early 1500’s. A well-tended garden of pumpkins is depicted in a drawing of the Native American village of Secota on Roanoke Island in 1590. Because of their versatility, ease in growing, and ability to last well into the winter, their use quickly spread throughout Europe. Pumpkins were grown in corn fields to save space, as seen in the Keystone Stereoview (circa 1920) below.

Keystone View Company P-11428 Fall-Making Hallowe’en Jack-o’-Lanterns in the Pumpkin Field (circa 1920).
Keystone View Company P-11428 Fall-Making Hallowe’en Jack-o’-Lanterns in the Pumpkin Field (circa 1920).

The children are in the process of carving out jack-o’-lanterns in the field. Note that the girl is sitting on a pumpkin while doing the carving. The view is composed of a series of triangles -- shocks of corn, arrangement of pumpkins in the foreground, the triangle of two children in the foreground with a child and adult closer in the background, in the far left, the triangle of a church steeple and the eyes of the jack-o’-lanterns.

Harper’s Weekly, November 23, 1867, The Pumpkin Effigy
Harper’s Weekly, November 23, 1867, "The Pumpkin Effigy."

There are many legends regarding the origin of jack-o’-lanterns, from the Irish tale of Stingy Jack to carved turnips (see National Geographic article cited below). They became embedded in the American psyche in stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as Washington Irving’s "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." In 1867, Harper's Weekly pictured an engraving of a jack-o’-lantern (below) that became the standard for jack-o’-lantern carving, thus establishing the image much like they did with Santa Claus. By the time of the publishing of the Keystone Stereoview, Halloween parties were common with their ubiquitous jack-o’-lanterns.


1Thomas Hariot, "A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia," Frankfurt, 1590.


Further reading