Here’s a notion you may never have considered before: Halloween is a lot like rock ’n’ roll. How so? It frequently comes with costumes, it regularly freaks out the squares, and it has any number of conflicting origin stories. Those conflicting tales run all the way down through most Halloween traditions, with accounts differing on how everything from pranks to bobbing for apples got associated with the holiday. But one staple of the holiday in particular is host to a number of theoretical origin stories. When it comes to trick-or-treating, how did candy become the treat?
Last year, the Post took a look at the history of Halloween costumes and the advent of trick-or-treating in America. Two European traditions that dated back to the 1500s, guising and mumming, were the forerunners of dressing up and going door to door for treats. It’s believed that pieces of those traditions made their way to the U.S. with various waves of immigrants in the 1800s. By the latter part of the 19th century, a more family-friendly version of Halloween had developed. Newspaper reports from Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Indiana mentioned Halloween parades in 1894 and 1895. But it was a Canadian newspaper that gave the old guising a new name in 1927; they called it trick-or-treat.
At that point, the treats were wildly diverse. It wasn’t unusual for people to hand out money, typically coins of the penny or nickel variety, which in itself was a holdover from the guising days. Another common treat was apples; apples, of course, had a Halloween association from the bobbing-for-apples game commonly played around fall harvest times. But even though candy occasionally found itself in the mix with nuts or tiny toys, it would take a while for it to become the dominant treat.
It would be fun to suggest a horror-related origin for the candy attachment. In 1931, brilliant (but problematic) horror trailblazer H.P. Lovecraft discussed his love of Hershey’s Sweet Chocolate in a letter. The follow year, writing to Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft reiterated his candy crush. However, no evidence exists that Lovecraft’s predilection for chocolate had any affect on candy’s role in Halloween, despite what his dread lord Cthulhu might wish.
Much like the origins of every other Halloween tradition, the impetus behind the rise of candy is the subject of some debate. And everyone from thekitchn to The Atlantic to Martha Stewart’s site has tried to answer the question. One thing is certain: In the early 20th century, candy makers tried to manufacture their own holiday. A story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer from October 1921 follows the original Sweetest Day, a creation that a dozen confectionery companies concocted to sell more candy. They held candy giveaways and tried to initiate the tradition in other major cities. The National Confectioners Association would continue to push the idea of Sweetest Day over the years; although it still exists, it never caught on at the level of a Valentine’s Day. However, candy would find a landing spot in October.
The proliferation of trick-or-treating in America faced three major obstacles in the early 20th century: World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II. While the practice didn’t die out, monetary hardships, rationing, and other social factors limited what people could give. However, as World War II ended and millions of Americans migrated to the suburbs, trick-or-treating boomed again. In a story called “Douglas Goes Begging on Halloween” from the October 1, 1947, edition of the Post’s younger sibling, Jack and Jill Magazine, a group of kids go out for trick-or-treating; at one house, they definitely get candy, like peppermint sticks. A number of early sitcoms like The Honeymooners also included Halloween episodes, rekindling interest in the holiday. The candy industry caught on, and began to shift their ad dollars in October to promote the giving away of candy for Halloween. American moms, delighted not to bake treats or clean apples for neighborhoods that might now have a hundred kids, found that doling out pre-wrapped candy was a much better alternative.
Since then, candy has grown into the staple treat of Halloween. Granted, there has been pushback and competition from various quarters. UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) launched their orange Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF boxes in 1950, which encourages kids to collect donations instead of candy. And of course, there are the various urban legends about candy tampering and poisoning that are still irresponsibly spread today. The genesis point for many of these myths was the tragic death of Timothy O’Bryan in Texas in 1974; O’Bryan’s candy was poisoned by his own father, Ronald, to collect a life insurance payout. The scam was uncovered and the elder O’Bryan went to prison and was executed in 1985. That case helped propagate many urban legends, but nearly all of the various stories and reports over the years have been false.
Today, candy as “The Treat” is the norm. The retail shelves are stuffed with assorted bags of fun-sized candies. And the darkly amusing side effect of the tampering myths is that people just don’t give out apples and the like anymore, since the pre-packaged candy is seen as the safest alternative. Besides, if you truly embrace the spirit of Halloween, you know that there are much, much scarier things in the dark than a Hershey’s. Just ask old Mr. Lovecraft.
Here is “Douglas Goes Begging on Halloween” by Martha E. Clay (writer) and Mathilda Keller (artist) as it was originally presented in Jack and Jill Magazine in October 1947.
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