Mention vintage Halloween collectibles and Mark B. Ledenbach becomes gleefully animated.
As he enthusiastically talks about Devil Bats, beautifully illustrated place cards from the 1920s or a Spear’s Hallowe’en Ring Toss Game from 1910 that’s one of his favorite collectibles, his passion for them pours out, punctuated by an encyclopedic knowledge of manufacturers, dates, and historical context. It’s a fun and fascinating conversation that can inspire you to want to start collecting these pieces yourself, if you don’t already.
Although Sept. 15 through Oct. 31 is officially the Halloween season for Ledenbach — he gets his outdoor lights strung up and lit (always on Oct. 1), puts his late 1960s blow molds of a pumpkin man, skeleton and others in his front window, and displays his 7-1/2-foot-tall decorated Halloween tree, which he doesn’t take down until early November — it’s Halloween every day for him, when he is surrounded by 5,000-7,000 collectibles that he keeps out all year round. He loves the collectibles, but he’s not that keen on the holiday itself and just stays home and hands out full-size candy bars to trick-or-treaters.
Ledenbach has been collecting vintage Halloween memorabilia for more than 30 years. His path to becoming one of the world’s noted authorities on these collectibles started by chance in 1988.
“I was browsing through an antiques shop. It was mid-September. I had no plan about what I was going to buy. The owner, who later became a friend, asked if I could help her move some boxes,” Ledenbach said. When she told him the boxes were filled with old Halloween decorations, he asked if he could open them and take a look.
“I immediately thought, ‘This is nice stuff.’ It was mostly from the 1930s and ’40s. I had never seen anything like it before and was immediately hooked,” he said. “I spent about $300 that day, which got a lot in 1988.”
Although Ledenbach was instantly bewitched by the wonderful world of Beistle black cats, winged ghosts, witch heads that double as candy containers, games of fortune-telling owls and much more, he didn’t instantly become an authority. He spent the next five years “flying blindly and buying indiscriminately” because there were no reference books or eBay to guide him in knowing if an item was rare or common, if the price was fair or who made it, so he was left to guess about everything. The one thing he was not indiscriminate about, however, was condition. He only bought, and still only buys, items in near-mint to mint condition; 90 percent of his pieces are a 9 or better.
“I have never bought for investment, but it turned out to be an investment. The prices keep increasing,” he said.
When a couple of books on vintage Halloween collectibles did come out in 1995 — one of which “got it right,” but the other full of inaccuracies — Ledenbach said he started to realize he knew differently and took a learning approach to his collecting. He spent years meticulously researching magazines and gathering information from sellers, and eventually amassed a stack of paper archives that is five feet tall.
As more books came out that weren’t that helpful for the hobby, it motivated him to want to write his own and share all of his research and knowledge with other collectors — particularly the background of items and where and when they were made, which is important information the other books didn’t include. The first edition of his book, Vintage Halloween Collectibles, came out in 2003 and is 208 pages. It quickly became the standard collecting reference and established Ledenbach as an expert voice in the hobby. The third edition was published in 2014; it is a whopping 301 pages and includes nearly 2,100 items and around 1,500 full-color photos. “This third edition is my best and final. There won’t be a fourth edition because there’s not much more to say.”
Ledenbach said another reason why he wrote the third edition was to make sure he still had a voice in the hobby. It’s safe to say that his place is secure, considering he has had his collection profiled in numerous magazines and newspapers around the country and has talked about it on The Martha Stewart Show and Antiques Roadshow FYI, and was featured as an expert appraiser on an episode of American Pickers. Most recently, he was contacted by Adam F. Goldberg, creator of the popular ABC television show, The Goldbergs, who requested some of his items to use on the show.
When collecting vintage Halloween items, it’s especially important to know when a piece was made because the “Golden Age” of these collectibles is from the teens to the mid-1930s. These years yield the cream of the crop of rare and early Halloween items that are prized treats for collectors, especially paper ephemera including invitations, tally cards and wall decorations. Some valuable items were made through the 1950s, though. Besides Beistle, the other prominent paper ephemera manufacturer during this time was Dennison, known for gummed silhouettes, seals, cut-outs, and Bogie Books. The Gibson Art Company of Ohio also did some top-notch work.
These collectibles are coveted for their richness in creativity and details. People can forget that Halloween was originally for adults, and specifically for two camps: those who wanted to throw fun parties, and those who wanted to attend them. This adult audience is why many vintage pieces tend to look more dark and maniacal than today’s friendly witches and cutesy devils. A Beistle Johnny Pumpkin Head from 1919-1922, for instance, can appear unassuming at first glance, but peer closer and you can detect something slightly sinister in its eyes and big, nearly toothless grin. It’s this delightfully spooky artistry that collectors find so appealing, and Ledenbach said he enjoys the imagery that you don’t see in the modern-day decorations that “emphasize gore over scare.”
While interest in some collecting categories wanes, like Jim Beam bottles, Avon collectibles and Hummels, Ledenbach said some collecting genres never go out of style and Halloween is one of them. In fact, he said the market for these items has never been hotter, but noted that not everything is. Some items have turned cold, in the sense that they haven’t gained in value, such as tin noisemakers. He said these have beautiful lithography, but there are a lot of them in the market. Candles made by Gurley in the 1930s-’40s also haven’t moved up in value because they’re not interesting to collectors. German candy containers and lanterns made in Germany, Japan and the U.S. are also softening. Ledenbach said this is because the first generation of collectors collected these items and as people are dying off, there is an influx of them in the market.
On the flip side, Ledenbach said the items that are hot right now and “ridiculously expensive” are American paper products of the 1920s and ’30s by Beistle and Dennison: diecuts, wall decorations, boxed sets of party invitations and envelopes, place cards, tally cards (cards that kept score of party games like bridge, Whist and Canasta) and other items of this nature.
Memorabilia from this Golden Age is highly valued because it’s so scarce. Ledenbach said Halloween didn’t have that same “bottom well of sentimentality” as Christmas. Christmas decorations were carefully packed away each year and kept for their sentimental value and to be passed on as heirlooms. Halloween decorations, on the other hand, were usually used once for a party and then picked up and thrown away by a tired party-giver. Games were played with and pieces would be torn from backing or cut away. Diecuts were stuck to walls with so much tape, that even if some of these were saved, the tape would end up damaging the condition.
“Some of these items five years ago would be $20, but now bring hundreds of dollars,” Ledenbach said. “This stuff is super hot because it’s getting harder to find. No one gave a darn and threw stuff away.”
Although the market overall is still going strong, Ledenbach does have a concern.
“The health of the hobby, on an A through F scale — with A being ‘I don’t know if this can get any healthier’ to F being ‘The risk of turning into Hummels’ — is an A, but with an asterisk.” He explained the asterisk is for the fact that some pieces are seeing prices so high now, he’s worried this might “turn into a rich person’s hobby.”
He cited the recent sale of a large Devil Bat diecut as an example. These diecuts were made in Germany in the 1930s, are rare, and have an odd, yet captivating, design of a cloven-hoofed devil with bat wings. A diecut in premium condition is valued around $3,500, but the diecut that recently sold wasn’t even fully original or in the best condition, yet it obtained a record price of $5,851.
“When I see results like that, I’m happy for the seller, but the hobby needs a new influx of collectors and it worries me that new collectors, particularly those in their teens to 30s, will think they need to open their wallets wide to collect some good stuff.” But he noted that there are other collectibles that are still nice and more affordable.
Even with all of his years of collecting, Ledenbach still sometimes comes across an item that takes him by surprise.
“One dealer I’m friends with recently sent me a photo of a Beistle invitation from 1930 that she found that I had never seen. I nearly fell out of my chair because I’ve wanted it for years. I offered her $450 for it, but told her she could get more somewhere else,” he said. But she accepted his offer because she said she was happy knowing it would be in his collection and make him happy to have it.
“I know there are many other rare and wonderful things out there just waiting to get into my grasp,” he said.
Ledenbach also operates his website, halloweencollector.com, which he started in 2003 and has consistently updated with new posts several times a week since then. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love,” he said. The site is both for serious collectors of vintage Halloween memorabilia and those just wanting to learn more about it.
“This is a wonderful hobby and I’ve met many wonderful people who care about maintaining this slice of Americana,” Ledenbach said. “I feel privileged to be part of this community.”
Want more Halloween? See our stories on Halloween traditions of yore, classic horror movie posters and Bewitching Collectibles: Magical beauties embody the spirit of Halloween
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