Retailing Halloween in the 1920s

October 20, 2010 at 10:30 am 3 comments

One of the fun things about looking back at the beginnings of the commercial candy trade is to see how modern ideas about marketing, sales and promotion first began to take hold. Today we are so accustomed to the annual round of seasonal sales and holiday decorations. But in the early 1900s, these were new ideas for retail.

In a 1917 issue of The National Druggist (St. Louis, MO), for example, a writer explains the basic idea of holiday promotion:

Holiday times are always good times for business. In the first place, people are then in a spending humor. “Other days they go around with their pockets buttoned up tight,” says an old druggist. “On holidays they open them.” … The point is that it will pay a retail merchant to capitalize the holidays as they come along, that is, to catch people while they are in a spending humor.

The description for window display possibilities for Halloween from this same article gives a useful description of the kind of commercial decorations that were widely available from stationery and novelty shops in this era:

Halloween gives us a fine opportunity for working up timely business. The wholesale stationers and novelty houses supply a big line of Halloween favors, place cards, paper table covers, paper napkins, noise makers, Halloween hats and a variety of Halloween decorations. Halloween suits for small children are coming into vogue now and some good sales may be made. Halloween is always a great time for window displays. The season’s colors, yellow and black, are extremely effective.

Interesting to note the reference to “Halloween suits for small children.” Although trick or treating was not yet invented, it was popular in some cities and towns to parade about or to go visiting door to door on Halloween. Here is an early glimmer of the costume business that will become so central to Halloween in our day.

Publications for soda fountains and candy shops made similar efforts to persuade business proprietors of the necessity of dressing up for the holidays. In the October 1921 issue of  The Soda  Fountain (New York, NY), a column urges “More Window Displays Needed”:

Window displays and fountain decorations are more important factors in business than is generally realized and the establishments which make use of them to the fullest extent are loud in their praise of them as business-getters.

This column offers some ideas for Halloween display as well:

Halloween, with its traditional orange and black color schemes, its pumpkins and black cats and witches, offers the excuse for any number of effective decorative schemes. With these displays may be joined various devices for attracting trade: souvenirs, special dishes, contests, etc., may all be tied up with the Halloween displays. Special candy sales, using appropriate containers are effective and often used to attract attention.

Soda fountains often sold candy as well, so the reference to special candy sales is not unusual. But it is notable that while special sales are mentioned, special candies are not.

While many small businesses seem to have been timid about taking advantage of holiday themes, some retailers in this era were extremely creative and adventurous in mounting impressive seasonal displays. A 1918 story in The National Drug Clerk (Chicago) describes in detail the Halloween display of one large New York druggist:

The ceiling and walls of the window were covered with grey crepe, and were cleverly decorated with black witches sailing on their brooms, black cats, and yellow pumpkins. To give a different effect, some of the witches were sailing in aeroplanes, and had a black cat sitting on one of the wings.

In the middle of the window was the customary large pumpkin. The eyes, instead of being square, were large and round.and long eyebrows tilting down toward the nose, were painted in, in black. The nose was cut in a V-shape, with black whiskers twirling around the mouth. The eyes were illuminated with tiny red lights.To the left of the pumpkin was a large mask (about two or three times the size of a regular mask) resembling a pirate. … To the right of the pumpkin was a mask resembling the Giant in “Jack the Giant Killer.” …  Suspended on different colored strings, which hung from the ceiling, were numerous kinds of masks of regulation size. 

On the floor of the window, which was also covered with grey crepe, were dainty little printed invitations. Some of the invitations were decorated with black cats while some were plain. Here and there were favors for the party, consisting of tiny boxes of candy in the shape of wishing wells and cats, whistles shaped like witches on their brooms, small dolls dressed up as witches and apples made of a wire frame, covered with red transparent paper, and filled with candy.

Leaning against the walls were books of games, conundrums and some of the popular ghost stories and superstitions connected with Hallowe’en.

This is a display for a druggist, not a candy store, but it is nevertheless striking that candy is so inconspicuous in the display. Druggists were perhaps the next largest retailers of candy, after specialty candy shops.Yet in this display, candy is only featured as the filling for party favors.

I imagine these paper-covered wire frame apple favors as the ancient ancestors of today’s trick or treat plastic pumpkin buckets. A century ago, kids would take home an apple’s worth of candy corn from their Halloween festivities. Today, we fill those huge pumpkins to the brim.

Entry filed under: 1890 to WW I, Holidays, Marketing. Tags: , , .

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Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

Welcome to Candy Professor

Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

Samira Kawash, PhD
Professor Emerita,
Rutgers University

(C) Samira Kawash

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