Candy Professor

Candy and Halloween Parties before 1920

In North America, Halloween parties have long been a favorite way to mark the holiday. The first descriptions of parlor gatherings come from the 1870s; by the 1890s the festivities were well established, with a variety of favorite games and activities and of course foods and decorations. Then as today, Halloween parties have always had a place for candy. But the kinds of candy, and the role of candy in the festivities, have changed pretty dramatically.

From the American Girl’s Handy Book (1888), a full chapter on festivities for “All Hallow Eve”, wherein candy makes a brief appearance:

Putting aside conventionality and dignity as we laid aside our wraps, ready for any fun or mischief that might be on hand, we proceeded down-stairs and into the kitchen, where a large pot of candy was found bubbling over the fire. This candy, poured into plates half-full of nuts, was eaten at intervals during the evening, and served to keep up the spirits of those who were inclined to be cast down by the less pleasing of Fortune’s decrees.

Ideas for a Halloween party in 1894 published in The American Agriculturalist included these proposals for refreshments: nut cake, pop corn, molasses candy and “as many more goodies as one cares to provide.”

In these pre-1900 party scenes, the candy references are decidedly turned toward the home-spun. Molasses candy could be purchased, but it was also a simple candy to make oneself, by cooking down molasses to candy consistency. As the American Girl’s Handy Book suggests, home candy making was a fun activity, especially suited to the colder fall and winter months.

The use of manufactured candy at Halloween only slowly became a common practice.  The children’s magazine St. Nicholas describes in detail the decorations, refreshments, games and entertainments for a children’s celebration of Halloween in 1905. Candy makes one brief appearance as part of the dining table décor: “The dining-table was set with a group of carrot candlesticks and bowlfuls of apples, nuts, grapes, and candy.” The story does not specify what sorts of candy are in the bowls. Here is an image:

Is there even any candy in this picture? The predominance of apples, grapes and nuts suggests that candy’s place in the 1905 Halloween decorating and treating scheme was minimal.

Where purchased candy is incorporated into the party, it is not necessarily any special kind of candy. For example, in 1917, the Kansas chapter of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity reported:

On October 20 the annual tacky party was given. Arriving in a hayrack, the guests entered the house by way of the kitchen door. The rooms were decorated with corn and witches in true Halloween fashion. Popcorn, apples, penny candy sticks, doughnuts, pie, and cider were served. The party was one of the most successful in the chapter’s history.

The “penny candy sticks” featured in Phi Gamma Delta’s Halloween romp were just about the most ordinary sort of candy you could find in those days. And in these Menus for Halloween Suppers featured in the October 1915 issue of American Cookery (the magazine of the Boston Cooking School) the proposed molasses candy, caramels and marshmallows were year round popular commercial candies. Notably, one of the three menus has no candy at all:

Hot Bacon Sandwiches
Potato Salad
Pickles Olives
Toasted Marshmallows
Pop Corn Balls
Apples

Hot Cheese Sandwiches
Cucumber Sandwiches
Yeast Doughnuts, Sugared
Coffee
Molasses Candy
Caramels

Oyster Salad
Buttered Rolls
Chocolate E’clairs
Gingersnaps
Coffee
Roasted Chestnuts
Apples

Today, many Americans and parents especially are beginning to feel like the candy at Halloween has gotten a little out of hand. These party descriptions and ideas from a century ago might be good inspiration for a way of celebrating a less candified Halloween.  Halloween Donuts, anyone?

More: An excellent book on the history of Halloween in North America (but not, alas, much on candy) is Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford University Press, 2002).