Whither Halloween Candy?

October 14, 2010 at 10:58 am 10 comments

Jack-o'-lantern bucket filled with Halloween candy

I say Halloween, you say… candy, right?

It seems pretty obvious. Look at all that Halloween candy lining the shelves down at the CVS!

But back in first half of the twentieth century, there was no such thing as “Halloween candy.” Candy was big at Christmas and Easter, but Halloween wasn’t on the candy calendar at all.

Today the association of Halloween and candy seems natural, inevitable. But 100 years ago, there were many holidays that were equally un-candified. Christmas was the first, most “natural” candy holiday; it was an easy leap from oranges and cakes to candy sticks and chocolate boxes. The candy trade didn’t have to do much more than put their product out there. But other candy holidays were made, not born. The first candy promotion holiday success was Easter. Candy makers emphasized molded candies for the holiday, most of which look just like the Easter candies of today: bunnies, chicks, eggs. But in the days before trick or treat (which was not popularized until the late 1940s), there wasn’t an obvious use or demand for candy at Halloween, or at any other holiday for that matter. If candy sellers noted Halloween at all, it was as a theme for window displays which changed every month with the seasons.

In the years around the first World War, modern ideas of promotion and advertising became increasingly important in the candy business (as in all other businesses). It was obvious that holiday tie-ins could sell candy, but candy boosters in the 1920s were just as likely to aim for Washington’s Birthday, St. Patrick’s Day or the 4th of July as likely candy holiday contenders.

Candy visionaries like V.L. Price, former executive secretary of the National Confectioners Association, urged a full-bore assault on Halloween in a speech he gave at the NCA convention in 1922:

Have you any doubt, if manufacturers would create special “Hallowe’en Candies” and retailers in large numbers would feature special displays and sales on Hallowe’en, but that it would greatly increase candy sales on that day, and in doing it, would eventually make Hallowe’en a candy season.

Price pretty much nailed it, but he was way ahead of his time. It would be more than 30 years before Price’s vision of “Halloween Candies” would really take off in the late 1950s.

So what changed? Trick or treat seems an obvious source of Halloween candy demand. But the earliest trick or treaters in the 1940s and 1950s didn’t expect candy. They got all kinds of stuff: nuts, fruit, coins, ice cream, cakes and cookies, novelties and toys. Candy was also a possibility, but way down the list.

It took many years for candy to become the “treat” of choice. Why? Impossible to give a single easy answer, but here are some of the influences. These first few are about the accidents of history, about how candy distinguished itself from the other possible treats:

  • Convenience. Candy came pre-portioned and pre-wrapped. Even in the 1950s, it would have been easier to give away Hershey bars than to bake cookies or wrap pop-corn balls. For a while, the cereal companies promoted single size boxes as trick or treat, for the same reason.
  • Marketing. Beginning in the mid 1950s, candy companies were pushing candy for trick or treat. New candy products were developed for the holiday, especially the mini-sized bars and small bags of loose candy like candy corn marketed especially for trick or treat. Over the decades, marketing and packaging for Trick or Treat became a bigger and bigger factor.
  • Candy as a controlled substance. This one is a little more mushy, but I wonder if part of the reason candy became the exclusive treat for Halloween isn’t because kids were getting less candy at other times. Increasing parental control and new ideas about health made kids in the 1970s much less likely to have independent access to candy than kids in the 1950s. So the candy debauch of Halloween became extra important.
  • Halloween sadists: the razor blade in the apple. The fear that kids might be harmed by malevolent strangers was probably the factor that sealed the fate of candy at Halloween. If there was a possibility of poison or needles or razor blades being added to cookie doughs and apples, the only “safe” treat was the one sealed at the factory. Home made and unwrapped treats went straight to the garbage can.

Now that candy so decisively dominates the holiday, specific qualities of candy make it seem to be the “obvious” choice:

  • Gluttony: If you are getting cookies and nuts and being invited in for some nice punch on Halloween, there’s only so much you can eat and it doesn’t hoard very well. In contrast, wrapped candies with long shelf lives  might inspire a more deliberate sort of massing and hoarding. But did kids start getting greedy because candy was being given out? Or were they already greedy, and candy just made it easier? Put another way,  did adults start buying candy to give away because they observed that kids were hoarding, and decided to make it easier? Or did kids start hoarding more when candy came their way?
  • Treatiness. If the treats are sweet, what is sweeter than candy? Surveys indicate that what kids want above all on Halloween is candy.

A recent development suggests that candy’s vice hold on Halloween may not be so tight, at least so far as the adults who purchase the lion’s share of the treats are concerned. I’ve been noticing in the past couple of years more and more alternative snacks packaged as Halloween give-outs: little pouches of pretzels, mini Oreos (with orange filling), Rice Krispie Treats, and even pop corn balls. More and more I hear of people deciding to give out other pre-packaged kiddie snack items like juice boxes or single-serve potato chips. And this year the California Milk Processors are urging parents to give out chocolate milk instead of chocolate candy.

All of which hearkens back to the earliest times of trick or treat, when treats could be quite various.  The difference of course is that back in the 1940s Mrs. Johnson might give out cakes or cookies that she had baked that afternoon. And if Mrs. Johnson was handing out nuts or raisins, they were loose and unwrapped. Today Ms Johnson is buying factory-sealed, shelf-stable, brand name versions of all manner of snackables. And she’s buying them because she just doesn’t feel right about handing out candy. Are the kid’s preferences changing too? I’m not sure.

It’s not just Halloween that seems to be shifting into a different candy key. Candy companies are diversifying into “healthy alternatives” as fast as they can. Does this mean we’ll be done with candy soon, having triumphantly moved into the Age of the Turnip? No. We’ll still have candy. It will just be called something else. There’s always something new under the mylar-wrapped sun.

Related post:

Candies For Trick or Treat in the 1950s

Entry filed under: Children and Candy, Holidays.

Fiber Candies to Come? 1951 Halloween Candy

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Halloween Round Up « Candy Professor  |  October 26, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    […] Whither Halloween Candy? When and why did Halloween get so candified, and will it always be about the candy? […]

  • 2. Robert  |  October 27, 2010 at 7:06 am

    Sorry, but don’t you mean “whence”?

    • 3. Candy Professor  |  October 27, 2010 at 7:12 am

      Hmm, do I?
      Depends on whether you think Halloween is getting better or worse, I suppose!
      Here, grammar appears to have been a casualty of the fundamental ambivalence… (or else my copy-editing department was slacking off again–heads will roll!)

  • 4. Minnie  |  October 27, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Do I dare point out that treats and candy being connected is a Scottish thing, that traditionally children go guising (that is going around town in costume singing/telling jokes/stories for reward).

    The American tradition has just evolved out of this.

    • 5. Candy Professor  |  October 27, 2010 at 12:13 pm

      There are guising traditions in Scotland and elsewhere to be sure (especially “souling” in England/Ireland). But outside popular belief, historians and folklorists have not found direct links between any particular old-world tradition and the practices that emerged in 19th and early 20th century U.S. Similarity is not the same as evolution. An excellent research article on this is Tad Tuleja, “Trick-or-Treat: Pre-Texts and Contexts,” in Jack Santino, ed. Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994).

  • 6. Candy Land | encyclopedia of the exquisite  |  October 27, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    […] in the New York Times today. The good professor has so many interesting insights about candy, but her post about the candification (?) of Halloween makes a great read on the eve of that all important sugary holiday. So here’s to candy! No […]

  • 7. Irene Grumman  |  October 27, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    All Hallows Eve, the night before All Souls Day, used to be a night when it was thought the dead could rise, and interact supernaturally with the living. They might reward or punish, or just scare, their descendants. A remnant of this idea survives in dressing up as zombies, ghouls and vampires, and demanding a propitiatory sacrifice, usually food. Today children get candy, while young adults get parties with booze and other ingestables or sniffables. It’s an ancient activity, to sweeten ghosts with goodies, and face down fear with fun. Children and adults alike may have to cope with upset stomachs later.

  • 8. lisa  |  October 28, 2010 at 10:24 am

    I see your logic re: kids hoarding candy on Halloween because they’re restricted the rest of the year. Makes sense, but I think there are other factors as well. In my family, we had sweet snacks available every afternoon, and we were free to use our allowances to buy candy. As you might expect, on Halloween, my brother ate a few of his candy treats and put the rest in a drawer where they languished for months before my mother threw them out. I, less predictably, gorged on my candy immoderately until my haul was gone. Is it possible that, for physiological or psychological (or some combination) reasons, some people are more likely to “abuse” candy? Just as some people seem able to smoke one or two cigarettes a day (my sister, my father) while others get hooked on a pack a day (my mother, me) and others are never even tempted (my brother)?

  • 9. tdf17  |  October 28, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    For years, we’ve given out small toys, each kid gets to choose one from a bowl of super balls, balsa airplanes, silly bands, kazoos, glow in the dark necklaces, etc. So far, the feedback is very positive from kids of all ages — “everyone else gives candy, this is something that will last longer.” If we had hordes of kids, it would get expensive, but we average 15-30, so it’s manageable. With Halloween on Sunday this year, might be more…

  • 10. RobtN  |  October 30, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    Great post. My grandfather was a candy wholesaler from 1915 to 1975, and your arguments align perfectly with my, and my mother’s memories.
    One thing I would add, though, is that while Christmas was the original candy-giving holiday, Easter quickly became the most important one, probably because there was much less non-candy competition in the gift space.
    Until candy sales became more normalized in the ’50s, through a combination of more “candy holidays” like Halloween and a higher baseline of retail candy bar & novelties sales, Easter sales literally made or broke a wholesaler’s year.


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