Posts tagged ‘halloween’

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

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

October 31, 2011 at 7:35 am 4 comments

Thanksgiving Trick or Treat

Before candy for Trick or Treat there were coins. And before Trick or Treat for Halloween there was Thanksgiving. This is the story.

close-up of a boy in a halloween costume eating candy

Up until the Depression, Thanksgiving was celebrated by the kids of New York in a way that looked more like Mardi Gras than Macy’s Parade. Kids would mask and dress up, scrounging for old dresses and top hats or improvising a hobgoblin or clown, blacken their faces with cork, and run the streets “mumming.” We don’t have much mummery today, but it involved music and performance and coins:

To the tune of mouth harps, comb and tissue paper and other childish instruments, or just a whistle, pigeon wings are cut, hand springs are turned songs are rendered and breakdowns executed, in keen competition for “something for Thanksgiving.”

Typically, onlookers would reward the “ragamuffins” with a penny or nickel. Some would shower coins from the overlooking windows, but there was a catch:

They used to heat the pennies on the stove or over the gas and they’d drop ’em out the window and when we kids picked ’em up we got our fingers burned. I remember how my fingers got blistered that way. But they don’t have any real fun like that anymore.

Children weren’t just roaming the streets begging pennies. What was especially annoying was their “practice of ringing all the doorbells and demanding backsheesh.” By 1930, New York’s Superintendent of Schools was publicly condemning the Thanksgiving begging, calling it a “serious annoyance to householders” and encouraging school principles and teachers to instruct students in the origins, meaning, and proper observance of Thanksgiving. Between official disapproval and the low mood and tight purse brought on by the Depression, Thanksgiving mummery virtually disappeared in the late 1930s.**

But dressing up and going about ringing doorbells and “demanding backsheesh” didn’t disappear; it just moved to Halloween. We call it “trick or treating.”

Close-up of pennies

In 1950, a Miami woman was prosecuted for “torturing and tormenting” children at Halloween. When a band of youngsters arrived at her house yelling “Trick or Treat,” she invited them in. She disappeared for a few minutes, then returned with a pan in her hand. “Here’s how we treat on Halloween in New York,” she screeched, as she tossed hot coins in the air. The kids, unfamiliar with the old New York Thanksgiving tradition of “red pennies,” dived for the money. Moments later, they ran out of the house screaming.

**A correction: John T., who grew up in Jersey City (NJ), wrote to me to correct my statement that Thanksgiving mummery disappeared in the late 1930s. I did not find any newspaper references later than that, but John tells me that kids in Jersey City continued going door to door for “anything for  Thanksgiving” into the 1950s.

Sources for quotes and references (in order of appearance): “Mardi Gras Here is Thanksgiving,” Nov. 17, 1929; “Ragamuffins Cling To Dying Tradition,” Nov. 27, 1931; “A Thanksgiving Day Abuse,” Nov. 27, 1903; “Meal for Everyone is Thanksgiving Aim, Nov. 26,1930; “Thanksgiving Begging Scorned by Dr. Campbell,” Nov. 25, 1934; “Punish Halloween ’Witch,’ Angry Parents Demand,” Nov. 3, 1950. All The New York Times digital archive.

November 23, 2009 at 6:55 am 2 comments

Halloween Aftermath

Boy in jack-o'lantern costume

Did you have much of a mess to clean up after Halloween? Any smashed pumpkins on the porch? Toilet paper festooning the tree? My neighborhood seemed mostly filled with little cuties in costumes, but later on, the mischief makers will have their way…

Our mess is quite mild compared with what people would put up with some hundred years ago. Around 1900, Halloween was a big night for parties and festivities for the genteel crowd. But for older boys, Halloween was a prankster’s dream.

A writer describing Halloween in 1895 gave a picture of the sorts of fun you might be having at a party:

In-doors they ’bobbed’ for apples, poked their noses in cups of flour, and walked down the cellar stairs at the witching hour of midnight, glancing over thier left shoulders into a mirror, to see the faces of their future helpmates.

But if you weren’t at a nice party, you were probably out and about getting into mischief:

Country boys and those in small towns reveled in throwing corn, cabbage heads, and decayed vegetables at the windows and doors of all good residents. The ubiquitous tick-tack was set up at many an old maid’s or crusty bachelor’s window and worked from a safe distance by the mischievous small boy.

Rotten pumpkins and even the “ubiquitous tick-tack” (whatever that was) were pretty straightforward. But pranks could be quite elaborate.

Residents at a teachers’ boarding house in Long Island woke up the morning after Halloween in 1900 to find their house surrounded by what appeared to be a graveyard. Their screams of horror turned to laughter as they realized they must have been the target of a Halloween prank. Tombstones had been mysteriously transported during the night from a nearby marble yard. The owner of the marble yard, who spent the day carting the stones back to their rightful place, was not so amused.

The Warden of Sing Sing prison had a scare on Halloween night 1915 when reports arrived of an escaped prisoner on the loose. Within minutes, guards captured Louis Minker, 18 years old. Minker pleaded for lenience, claiming that he was only intending to celebrate Halloween. He had found the cast off prison garb, and thought it would make an appropriate costume. The Warden threatened to throw him in a cell in retribution, but the judge let him off with a stern talking-to.

Sometimes, the fun could go sour. In 1905, ten boys were fined for soaping the trolley rails on the steepest hill in Greenwich, Connecticut, causing several cars to careen down the hill and dump their passengers. The newspaper reporter seemed sympathetic to the boys’ prank, noting in the report that they “thought it a great joke” and had “only considered the fun.” The Judge, too, took a lenient view, telling the boys “if the offense had happened on any other night but Hallowe’en he would have sent them to jail.”

In those days Americans generally accepted the notion that for one night a year, such pranks could be forgiven. But even the most lenient attitude toward boyish pranks could not forestall the occasional tragedy. William Copeland of Ann Arbor, Michigan opened fire with his shotgun when a party of boys came to rattle his fence on Halloween 1904. One boy was hit, and the police began proceedings to prosecute. Copeland was so distraught at the course of events that he ate poison, taking his own life.

Sources: All New York Times: “Halloween Fun and Mischief,” 1 Nov. 1985; “Gruesome Halloween Joke,” 2 Nov. 1900; “Masked in Sing Sing Suit,” 31 Oct. 1915; “Soaped the Trolley Tracks,” 3 Nov. 1905; “Suicide After Halloween,” 3 Nov. 1904.

November 3, 2009 at 10:39 am 5 comments

Laxatives and the end of Trick or Treating

Halloween is here, and once again we mourn the death of Trick or Treating. It happened exactly fifty years ago, today.

Thinkstock Single Image Set

Halloween 1959. Dr. William V. Shyne, a dentist in Fremont, California, was having an off day. Maybe his wife just left him, maybe his pants were too tight, maybe he just didn’t like people. Or rather, maybe he just didn’t like kids.

Kids came around to his house that night, ringing the bell and calling Trick or Treat! Lots, maybe a couple hundred. In 1959, every kid in America under the age of 10 or so was out on Halloween night, making the rounds. They would go in gangs and groups, the older ones on their own, the littlest ones with older kids or their parents, ringing bells and gathering candy loot and howling and hooting.

Dr. Shyne answered the door. And he gave out treats, all right. But his treats turned out to be a mean and nasty trick. Police investigators discovered he had “dispensed” 450 candy-coated laxative pills into kids’ outstretched bags. Thirty of those kids became very, very sick.

Dr. Shyne was charged with “outrage of public decency” and “unlawful dispensing of drugs.” They should have charged him with murder. Because after that, Halloween was never the same.

Halloween 1960 began the era of “Halloween sadism.” Was it safe to Trick or Treat? What maniac might put a LSD tab, or a poisoned Tootsie Roll, or a razor-spiked apple, in little Suzy’s bag? Stories surfaced of pins, needles, razor blades, but they would fade away under closer examination. Nevertheless, Americans came to believe that kids weren’t safe at Halloween. Parents scrutinized their kiddies’ loot and confiscated anything “wierd.” No cookies, no apples, no unwrapped candies, that was obvious. Some towns set up X-ray stations at hospitals to “check the candy.” The festive and free romping of the streets for Trick or Treat faded into a circuit at the mall, a party at church, a supervised promenade to select neighbors homes.

But through all of that, even up to today, there has never been a single substantiated instance of an anonymous sadist causing death or life-threatening injury. Not one.

Dr. Shyne was the first, and only, of his kind.


PS. I hear, contrary to the boo-hoo-ers, that in fact in many neighborhoods trick or treat is alive and well, with the proper supervision and safeguards. Like the vampires and zombies of Halloween, Trick or Treat rises from the grave!

October 30, 2009 at 7:09 am 13 comments


Trick-or-treat feels like an ancient American tradition. But like everything “ancient” in the U.S., it’s actually a pretty recent invention. In the 1950s, many adults were puzzled or even angered by the appearance of kids on the doorstep expecting a treat.

Today, if you don’t like trick-or-treat you can just turn out your porch light. But one of my favorite trick-or-treat stories is about a disgruntled High School principal who took matters into his own hands…literally.

It was Halloween in Brooklyn, 1952. Dr. Mason was having a hard night. Gangs of rowdy boys had been roaming the neighborhood, overturning trash cans and ringing door bells. Dr. Mason, an upstanding educator, was not amused by the high spirits of youth.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, little Richard Wanderman, age 10, asked his mother for permission to join some friends for a “trick-or-treat tour.” Mother agreed and suggested they start at Dr. Mason’s house. Dr. Mason being a school principal and all, Mrs. Wanderman was sure he’d give them something.

Richard rang Dr. Mason’s bell. Dr. Mason was not happy with their ungentlemanly demand for a treat. Instead of candy, he offered a five minute lecture on the evils of begging and why little boys should not run about demanding tribute and behaving like little gangsters.

Richard and crew were not so easily edified. Richard stepped up, put his fist in Dr. Mason’s face, and growled “Hand it over, or else!”

At which point, Dr. Mason did hand it over in a sense: a back of the hand to little Richard’s face.

For that Halloween, there were no treats. Instead, Richard got an ice-pack, and Dr. Mason got a charge of assault in the third degree and a court summons. In his defense, Dr. Mason noted: “I did not know it was a neighbor’s child.”

Source: “Trick-or-Treat Seeker Gets Neither: Mother Says Principal Slapped the Boy” New York Times 4 Nov. 1952; “Everyone Regrets Halloween Slap,” New York Times 11 Nov. 1952.

October 28, 2009 at 7:33 am 6 comments

Candies For Trick or Treat in the 1950s

Close up view of a Halloween bag storing candy sweets

Halloween is coming. Trick-or-Treat and … CANDY!

It’s hard to believe, but back in the 1950s, Halloween wasn’t really a candy holiday.

Before the 1940s, most Americans had never heard of trick-or-treat. And as trick-or-treat caught on after World War II, treats were various and mostly not candy. Typical treats included cookies, popcorn balls, nuts, coins, and also jelly beans and candy corn, loose and unwrapped. And of course the occasional rock.

Life Magazine doesn’t have any ads for candy that mention trick-or-treat before 1953. In the October 26, 1953 issue, Fleer Dubble Bubble ran an ad that said “Treat the Kids this Halloween with Dubble Bubble.” The accompanying drawing features a woman handing gum to a pack of costumed kids. There’s a little black cat sitting at her feet. Think “Bewitched” but brunette.

Mars, Inc. was another of the very early manufacturers promoting candy for trick-or-treat. The October 25, 1954 issue of Life features an ad for Milky Way bars promoting the “Haunting Flavor” of its “three layer treat.” The image shows a ghost eating a Milky Way. Fleer Dubble Bubble also ran an ad in the same issue with a masked trick or treater ringing a doorbell, a clever visual reference to the early “gangster” origins of trick-or-treat.

The association of candy with Halloween was not obvious to everyone, though. Other products pitched trick-or-treat  as an occasion to spread their own kind of goodness. The October 25, 1954 issue of Life included a Kellogg’s ad for cereal Snack-Paks that reads “Sweet treats for little kids!” and shows a woman handing a box of Frosted Flakes to the Trick or Treaters. In 1959, the October 26 issue featured trick-or-treat theme ads for Hawaiian Punch (“treats for thirsty tricksters”), Kool Aid (“loot for the trick or treaters”), and my own personal favorite for weird Halloween tie-in, Dutch Masters Cigars (costumed kids hold a cigar box out to dad: “No trick…all treat”).

Anything could be a Halloween treat. And candy advertised around Halloween might not even make a Halloween reference. In 1954 and later years, Brach’s ran an ad for chocolate peanuts which made no mention of the season or the holiday. Mars ran an ad for the Mars bar in the October 29,1956 issue, but it is a general ad that makes no reference to Halloween.

Most candy in the 1950s, even if it was advertised for Halloween, didn’t have any special  packaging or wrapping. The first ad I’ve found for specially packaged trick-or-treat candy bar miniatures is from Curtiss, in 1960: “the goblins ‘ll get you if you don’t treat ’em right!” Mom is holding a bowl with assorted Baby Ruth and Butterfinger bars. They are “miniature” compared to regular, sure, but kids in those days were getting a “mini” about three times the size of today’s Halloween treat size!

(CORRECTION Oct 15, 2010: I have since found ads much earlier mini-bars advertised for Halloween, as this from 1951 (Hershey’s “mini,” “small size” Baby Ruth and Butterfinger [Curtiss]. Were there others in the 1950s? When did the mini size become wide spread?).

I found these pictures of some of the earliest candy packages that refer explicitly to trick-or-treat, both from the mid 1950s:

Heath halloween package 1955

This Heath package is from 1955. It is a regular 24 box of Heath bars, with a special sleeve that could be removed if the merchandise stayed on the shelf after the holiday. This kind of multi-purpose package suggests that Halloween wasn’t sending candy flying off the shelf.

halloween package 1956

This hexagonal carton is an award winning package distributed by the Sierra Candy Company in 1956. Its terribly clever: ears sick out the sides for a comic effect, while a menacing toothsome grin and googly eyes offer a peek a the candy inside.

Sources: Life Magazine courtesy of Google Books (tip: to see a larger image of the ad, click on the single page view in the Google viewer after clicking my link); Confectioners Journal Sept. 1955 p. 24, April 1956 p. 36.

October 26, 2009 at 6:50 am 9 comments

The First Candy Day, 1916

close-up of lollipops

October brings cooler days, longer nights, and Halloween, the biggest candy day of the year (at  least in my book).

But one hundred years ago, there was no such thing as “trick or treating.”  For girls, Halloween was a night of genteel parties with apple bobbing and fortune tellers. And for boys it was the chance to turn hooligan for the night, to the consternation of property owners and upright citizens. But candy? Not so much.

Some time in 1916, the candy people looked at their empty fall calendars and decided what America needed was a new candy holiday, a day to celebrate all things candy, to eat candy with extra enthusiasm, and not coincidentally, to give candy sales a boost in advance of the Christmas holiday season. So the word went forth from the National Confectioners Association: The second Saturday of October would henceforth be known as Candy Day.

Candy Day, the day when every man, woman and child in this country will be urged to forget minor affairs for the time being and see to it that someone is sent a box or bag or bucket of candy.

In anticipation of October 14, 1916, the candy trade journals beat the drum to encourage local candy shops to feature Candy Day promotions. Sample signs were published, as well as “articles” that could be sent to local papers extolling the festivities of Candy Day and the virtues of candy eating.

The true “Candy Day” spirit is apart from the idea of just stimulating a greater consumption of candy. This will naturally follow a national educational campaign exploiting the real food value of candy–pure candy. The “Spirit of Candy Day” proper may be interpreted as a spirit of good will, appreciation and good fellowship.

The sentiments were noble. But behind the scenes, the intentions were no secret.

The only motive of the [NCA Executive Committee] is to aid every Manufacturer, Jobber and Retailer in increasing his profits through increased sales on “Candy Day.”

It’s simply asking you if you want to make some extra money, and if you do, you are requested to go ahead and push this “Candy Day” idea.

Unfortunately, the holiday was short-lived. Candy Day had been a mixed success. Candy shops that used the promotional materials had good sales, and customers seemed happy with another occasion to enjoy the sweet stuff. In late 1916 hopes were high that with the proper promotion, Candy Day would takes its place alongside the more widely recognized holidays. But Candy Day 1917, meant to be celebrated on October 13, had to be canceled. Something else came up. A little distraction we know today as “World War I.”

There is more to the story. Efforts were made to revive Candy Day after the war, but it never really caught on. Candy Day was reinvented as “Sweetest Day” in Cleveland in 1921, and that did have a little more success, but that is another story (I’ll write about that one soon).

Of course, today we DO have a “Candy Day” in October. We just call it something else. We call it HALLOWEEN!

P.S. Look on your calendar; the second Saturday in October is tomorrow. Happy Candy Day!

Sources: “Nation Wide Candy Day,” Candy and Ice Cream July 1916, p. 34; “Candy Day,” International Confectioner June 1916, p. 39; (NT: Candy Day results) International Confectioner Nov. 1916, p. 41

October 9, 2009 at 6:03 am 1 comment

Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

Welcome to Candy Professor

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.

(C) Samira Kawash

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