Pumpkins and Pie: Not Quite Trick or Treat (Arsenic and Old Lace)

October 31, 2011 at 7:35 am 4 comments

Last night my family decided to watch the classic Frank Capra film released in 1944, Arsenic and Old Lace. What a terrific surprise to discover that it is set in Brooklyn on Halloween!

And an even better treat: a glimpse of  a very interesting early precursor to trick or treat. At about 24 minutes into the film, the aunties retire to the kitchen. Dashing Cary Grant follows, and we see some very strange action around the back door. A swarm of masked children are hollering and shouting and holding out their arms, and the aunties are passing them goodies. Sort of. They hand them: two big pumpkin jack o’ lanterns, and one pie.

I have done research into the origins of trick or treat: I wanted to know when kids started coming to the door, saying “trick or treat,” and demanding a treat or else threatening a trick. It emerges in various places in the mid to late 1930s. By the late 1940s, it is a familiar part of Halloween all across the country. For example, trick or treat features in episodes of Ozzie and Harriet and The Jack Benny Show (both 1948). By the 1950s, the trick part is gone and it’s all about the treats.

The scene in Arsenic and Old Lace was filmed in 1941. (The film is usually dated 1944; this is the release date because the film was held back while the play continued to fill houses on Broadway.) In 1941, trick or treat has just started showing up in other states, but the phrase “trick or treat” hasn’t yet arrived in New York. In the 1920s and earlier, kids on Halloween mostly went around doing pranks. What happens in Arsenic and Old Lace  is trick or treat almost: the kids are at the door, but they are more unruly mob than organized trick or treat squad.

I would love to know more about what is going on in this scene. Was this what kids did on Halloween in Brooklyn in the 1930s? Or maybe even in Los Angeles? The movie was filmed in City Island, NY, and in Burbank; Frank Capra grew up in Los Angeles and made his career in Hollywood. Where did the inspiration for this scene originate?

And if this is an accurate representation of what kids either in New York or Los Angeles were doing in 1941, what did they call it? I wonder if it’s possible to deconstruct the audio and hear what they are shouting.  And were these pumpkins and pies really the sort of thing a household would offer? I mean, what are the kids going to do with this stuff?

No, there was no candy at the beginning of trick or treat. In 1941, it was Jack o’ lanterns and pies. But it’s easy to see how candy eventually took over as the treat of choice.

Happy Halloween!

For more on trick or treat before candy, see my piece at TheAtlantic.com.

Entry filed under: Holidays. Tags: , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Walbert  |  October 31, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    There’s a deep origin of trick-or-treating in the old European custom of “souling,” giving out soul cakes on Halloween (originally as alms), but it’s interesting that this was suddenly pulled from the trashbin of Anglo-American culture in the 1930s and reinvented. Why, do you think, and why then? And was there any previous version of door-to-door Halloween threat-making, or was it entirely an American original to turn alms-giving into blackmail?

    • 2. Candy Professor  |  October 31, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      I have an article forthcoming in the American Journal of Play on just this question. Sneak preview: Gangsters. Stay tuned.

      • 3. David Walbert  |  October 31, 2011 at 8:28 pm

        Looking forward to it!

  • 4. Loralee  |  November 14, 2011 at 12:53 am

    We lived in England for a year, and saw trick-or-treaters on Halloween. I was not surprised, as I thought it must have been some sort of holdover from All Hallow’s Eve, originally a European religious day, but a housemate told me that no, trick-or-treating in England had started fairly recently, and they had gotten the idea from America. I think he also said you’d better give them a treat, or they would play a trick


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Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

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Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

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