In pictures: Halloween in 1950s Yellowknife

Boy in halloween costume, from Henry Busse's collection
Henry Busse's collection of around 54,000 photos stretches from the 1940s to the 1960s.
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Having a hard time with your Halloween costume? Not to worry. That’s been a problem here for 60 years.

Creativity is the key when it comes to Halloween in the North. Just ask the couple who turned up to a Yellowknife party in 1955 dressed as an alcoholic beverage and a mixer. Whatever works.

We have photographic evidence of early Yellowknifers’ Halloween prowess thanks to Henry Busse and the NWT Archives.

Busse ran a photography store in Yellowknife from 1947 until his death in an air crash in 1962. He left behind a staggering collection of 54,000 photos documenting all walks of northern life.

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In 2007 and 2008, with federal funding, archivist Erin Suliak went through the whole lot. Photo by photo, she rediscovered and preserved Busse’s magnificent collection – including his Halloween images. Suliak picked out some examples for My Yellowknife Now.

“Anything that happened in town, he was there and he was shooting it,” she told us. “He was a roving man-about-town. A burning building? He’s there, shooting it. He was one of the prime recorders of life in Yellowknife at the time.

“Each envelope containing a photo would have maybe a client’s name, an event or a date on it. You open it up and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Usually what’s on the envelope describes what’s inside, but sometimes you would find these real gems. It was like Christmas every day.”

Suliak devoted two years to uncovering and cataloguing Busse’s work.

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“There are a few things that come out. He loved animals, that’s plain,” she said. “People would bring their pets into his shop, the pet would be on the counter and he would take a beautiful picture of their pet.

“There were lots of pictures of wildlife, too. He was friends with Bill McDonald, after whom the middle school is named, who was a naturalist and seems to have been a huge fan of birds, especially. Henry and Bill would go out to islands to shoot photos of ravens, eagles and birds’ nests.”

From his photos, Busse appears to have known almost everyone in the younger Yellowknife of the 1950s. Each October, he could be found at somebody’s party or ball, taking photos of people in their costumes.

NWT Archives - Henry Busse's Halloween photos
Children wearing costumes pose at a party at the Sykes’ home. Yellowknife, October 30, 1955.

In one, taken at the home of a Mrs Sykes on October 30, 1955, children pose for a group photo.

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“They look to be around eight or 10 years old, all dressed up in a crazy variety of costumes, and the house is decorated with witches and skeletons,” said Suliak.

“The kids are all done up: clowns, a baton twirler, maybe a sailor, a little Dutch girl I think, a girl in a cat costume.

NWT Archives - Henry Busse's Halloween photos
A girl wearing a cat costume points to a jack-o’-lantern at a children’s party at the Sykes’ home. Yellowknife, October 30, 1955.

“I really like this photo from the same party,” she added, pointing to another image of a girl standing with a jack-o’-lantern. “It might be the little girl whose party it was. She’s standing in front of what must have been a top-of-the-line stereo.”

Other photos show the Yellowknife Armories Halloween Ball on October 29, 1954.

“It was a masquerade ball, people are wearing masks – and that’s what I noticed from these photos, people tended to wear masks for Halloween a lot more than they do now,” said Suliak.

NWT Archives - Henry Busse's Halloween photos
A woman in costume tries to eat an apple on a string during an Armories Halloween Ball. Yellowknife, October 29, 1954.
NWT Archives - Henry Busse's Halloween photos
Men and women wearing costumes dance at an Armories Halloween Ball. Yellowknife, October 29, 1954.
NWT Archives - Henry Busse's Halloween photos
A man and woman in bottle costumes stand with a man at a microphone wearing a kilt. Halloween dance at the Con Mine recreation hall, Yellowknife, October 30, 1955.

Reflected in the photos is the era in which they were taken. Some of the costumes on display have, by the year 2015, been regarded as inappropriate for decades – but were accepted at the time.

As for the happy couple dressed as alcohol and a mixer, they made their appearance at the Con Mine recreation hall. A man in a kilt can be seen next to them, possibly trying to tell them their costumes are falling apart.

“It shows the ingenuity that Yellowknifers had, and continue to have, in making their costumes,” said Suliak.

“The North was smaller then. No matter where Henry was taking his photos, people were banding together in a real community spirit. Whether they were newcomers or they had been there for generation upon generation, there was a welcoming spirit that I think continues today.

“The openness of the subjects in his photos is just wonderful to see.”

NWT Archives: Explore around 8,000 of Henry Busse’s photos online

If you have a question about the Busse collection or you would like to have the collection searched for something specific, you can get in touch with the NWT Archives.

NWT Archives - Henry Busse's Halloween photos
A young boy wearing a cowboy costume holds a balloon. Yellowknife, November 2, 1950.
NWT Archives - Henry Busse's Halloween photos
Men and women wearing costumes at a Halloween party pose for a group portrait. Yellowknife, October 28, 1950.
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