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.