Candy Professor

Whither 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:

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

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