Wherever you turn this October, candy beckons. Americans will spend an estimated $2 billion on candy during the Halloween season this year, and here’s a fun fact from the California Milk Processors Board: “an average Jack-O-Lantern bucket carries about 250 pieces of candy amounting about 9,000 calories and about three pounds of sugar.”
Phew. My molars are hurting just thinking about it. If treats are a temptation you hope to avoid, October is the cruelest month. And I can think of only one place in America where your Halloween composure is unlikely to be ruffled by endless quantities of cheap and glittering candies: the past.
Given the ubiquity of candy at this time of year, it is hard to imagine that 100 years ago, Halloween looked quite different from the candy debauch of today.
The biggest difference was trick-or-treating. This seemingly timeless custom is actually a quite recent American invention. The ritual of costumes, doorbell-ringing, and expectation of booty appeared for the first time in different locations throughout the country in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that trick-or-treating became widespread on a national scale. And even then, candy wasn’t the obvious treat.
Kids ringing a stranger’s doorbell in 1948 or 1952 received all sorts of tribute: Coins, nuts, fruit, cookies, cakes, and toys were as likely as candy. In the 1950s, Kool-Aid and Kellogg’s promoted their decisively non-candy products as trick-or-treat options, while Brach’s once ran ads for chocolate-covered peanuts during the last week of October that didn’t mention Halloween at all.
It took a while for candy to become what it is today, the very essence of Halloween. Going back even farther to the early decades of the century, before trick-or-treating spread across the land, candy didn’t have any special role to play in Halloween observance.
For youth, and especially boys, Halloween was the one night of the year when communities generally tolerated pranking, which might range from the clever or playful to the dangerous or destructive. Mailboxes, fences, streetcars, and gravestones were popular targets. The point was to cause mischief, not to gather treats. Halloween also wasn’t a gift-giving holiday, which in the case of Christmas and other early candy holidays provided the candy “hook.”
While the hooligans were out wreaking havoc, the more genteel would celebrate Halloween with parties. The menus and décor for these early Halloween festivities emphasized seasonal fruits. Pumpkins and apples were especially important. Making popcorn balls and fudge was sometimes part of the festive activities, but if there was purchased candy along the lines of candy corn or jelly beans, it was an afterthought, just a something over there with the nuts and favors.
When candy makers in the 1910s and 1920s looked for ways to grow their fall sales, Halloween barely registered as a potential marketing opportunity, even though they were already using holidays as opportunities to sell seasonal confections. Christmas and Easter were big candy events, already established with their candy traditions by 1900: boxed chocolates and hard candies for Christmas, jelly eggs and molded bunnies for Easter. Lagging not far behind in importance on the candy holiday calendar was Washington’s Birthday, to be celebrated with special marzipan cherries and cocoa-dusted logs. But special candies for Halloween? Not a one.
It was during the 1950s that candy made decisive inroads in dominating Halloween. The rise of trick-or-treating made the holiday the perfect occasion for marketing a product associated with children and fun. But the push from candy sellers was met with equally enthusiastic demand. Candy was easy to buy and easy to distribute, making it a convenient choice for Halloween hosts. And as the numbers of trick-or-treaters swelled, candy was also economical. Small, inexpensive candies became popular, and major candy manufacturers began making smaller candy bars or bags of candy corn.
Through the 1960s, it was still conceivable that some other treat might be offered. It wasn’t until the 1970s that candy came to be seen as the only legitimate treat. And while the candy industry reaped the benefits, the immediate impetus was not brilliant marketing so much as rising fears that unwrapped or homemade Halloween treats posed risks of tampering and poisoning. Commercial wrapped candy was the only safe choice.
All of which raises the question: What was the candy industry up to during all those years before we had the license and opportunity to indulge in enormous quantities of Halloween candy? It turns out that in 1916, candy promoters did come up with an idea to launch the fall candy season and boost sales and consumption, but it wasn’t Halloween. It was a new holiday invention, uniquely American in its entrepreneurial spirit: Candy Day.
Samira Kawash researches and writes on the cultural and social history of candy in 20th-century America. She is professor emerita, Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ). She blogs on candy history and opinion at CandyProfessor.com.
Originally published on TheAtlantic.com and republished with author’s permission.