Some Jack-O'-Lantern history

Jerry Apps
There is still some mystery surrounding the early beginnings of Jack-O’-Lanterns.

Although Halloween has come and gone, here is a look back on those cheery orange pumpkins that we call Jack-O'-Lanterns. Come Halloween each year, Pa would help my brothers and me pick out just the right pumpkins for Jack-O’-Lanterns from our pumpkin patch. Not too big. Not too small. Just the right size so we would could get our hands inside to clean out the seeds and find a place to put a candle.

We’d cut a face in the pumpkin. Sometimes smiling, sometimes sad, sometimes scary. When finished, for Halloween night we put our pumpkins on the back porch, light the candles and look at our work. I doubt anyone else saw them as there was no such thing as kids going from house to house in search of some free candy. Farms were a half mile and more about—too much walking.

Remembering these early Jack-O’-Lanterns the other day, I wondered how did all of this begin? After some reading, I discovered that the name, Jack-0’-Lantern, traces back to the 17th century in Britain. According to what I read, at the time if you didn’t know a man’s name, you called him Jack.

So, an unknown man carrying a lantern was sometimes referred to as “Jack with the lantern,” or “Jack of the lantern.” That is apparently the root of the name Jack-O’-Lantern. Less clear is how the name became associated with a hollowed-out pumpkin.

One theory suggests that a carved-out pumpkin with a candle inside was used as a prank to scare people at night. Another theory suggested that a carved-out pumpkin with a scary face and a candle inside was a way of warding off evil spirits. These traditions came along with the immigrants from Europe to this country. Less clear is how the name Jack-O’-Lantern became a common name for these hollowed-out pumpkins.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: There is still some mystery surrounding the early beginnings of Jack-O’-Lanterns.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to