Before candy for Trick or Treat there were coins. And before Trick or Treat for Halloween there was Thanksgiving. This is the story.
Up until the Depression, Thanksgiving was celebrated by the kids of New York in a way that looked more like Mardi Gras than Macy’s Parade. Kids would mask and dress up, scrounging for old dresses and top hats or improvising a hobgoblin or clown, blacken their faces with cork, and run the streets “mumming.” We don’t have much mummery today, but it involved music and performance and coins:
To the tune of mouth harps, comb and tissue paper and other childish instruments, or just a whistle, pigeon wings are cut, hand springs are turned songs are rendered and breakdowns executed, in keen competition for “something for Thanksgiving.”
Typically, onlookers would reward the “ragamuffins” with a penny or nickel. Some would shower coins from the overlooking windows, but there was a catch:
They used to heat the pennies on the stove or over the gas and they’d drop ’em out the window and when we kids picked ’em up we got our fingers burned. I remember how my fingers got blistered that way. But they don’t have any real fun like that anymore.
Children weren’t just roaming the streets begging pennies. What was especially annoying was their “practice of ringing all the doorbells and demanding backsheesh.” By 1930, New York’s Superintendent of Schools was publicly condemning the Thanksgiving begging, calling it a “serious annoyance to householders” and encouraging school principles and teachers to instruct students in the origins, meaning, and proper observance of Thanksgiving. Between official disapproval and the low mood and tight purse brought on by the Depression, Thanksgiving mummery virtually disappeared in the late 1930s.**
But dressing up and going about ringing doorbells and “demanding backsheesh” didn’t disappear; it just moved to Halloween. We call it “trick or treating.”
In 1950, a Miami woman was prosecuted for “torturing and tormenting” children at Halloween. When a band of youngsters arrived at her house yelling “Trick or Treat,” she invited them in. She disappeared for a few minutes, then returned with a pan in her hand. “Here’s how we treat on Halloween in New York,” she screeched, as she tossed hot coins in the air. The kids, unfamiliar with the old New York Thanksgiving tradition of “red pennies,” dived for the money. Moments later, they ran out of the house screaming.
**A correction: John T., who grew up in Jersey City (NJ), wrote to me to correct my statement that Thanksgiving mummery disappeared in the late 1930s. I did not find any newspaper references later than that, but John tells me that kids in Jersey City continued going door to door for “anything for Thanksgiving” into the 1950s.
Sources for quotes and references (in order of appearance): “Mardi Gras Here is Thanksgiving,” Nov. 17, 1929; “Ragamuffins Cling To Dying Tradition,” Nov. 27, 1931; “A Thanksgiving Day Abuse,” Nov. 27, 1903; “Meal for Everyone is Thanksgiving Aim, Nov. 26,1930; “Thanksgiving Begging Scorned by Dr. Campbell,” Nov. 25, 1934; “Punish Halloween ’Witch,’ Angry Parents Demand,” Nov. 3, 1950. All The New York Times digital archive.