Saturday, 29 October 2016

A Brief History of Trick-or-Treating

A vintage Coca-Cola "Trick or Treat"ad
Perhaps no other custom is as closely identified with Halloween in the United States and Canada as trick-or-treating. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 41.2 million children went from door to door asking for treats in 2014. An estimated $3 billion is spent on candy alone each Halloween. Given how strongly identified trick-or-treating is with Halloween in the United States and Canada, one would think it had always been a part of the holiday. That having been said, while Halloween is a fairly old holiday, trick-or-treating itself only goes back as far as the 20th Century.

Of course, this is not to say that there were not customs similar to trick-or-treating that pre-date the 20th Century, although often they were associated with holidays other than Halloween. In England wassailing was a practice that dates back to the Middle Ages. It was observed at Twelfth Night and involved people going from door to door singing and offering a drink of wassail (generally a hot mulled punch) in exchange for gifts.  In many ways it was a forerunner to carolling. Mumming is another Yuletide custom that dates back to the Middle Ages. It involves people going from door to door asking for food or money in exchange for a performance of a mummer's play.  Allhallowtide (Halloween, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day) had its own equivalent custom in the form of souling. Souling was a custom observed in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales on All Souls' Day whereby individuals would go from door to door singing and praying for those who have died in exchange for soul cakes. At least from the 16th Century a similar custom was observed in Scotland on Halloween itself. Guising consisted of groups of young men setting about in costumes and singing in exchange for nuts, apples, or money.

While these customs are quite similar to today's trick-or-treating, a direct line cannot be traced from trick-or-treating back to any of them. The first book-length history of Halloween, The Book of Hallowe'en by Ruth Edna Kelley, was published in 1919. Ruth Edna Kelley was very extensive when it came to the many customs, tricks, games, and other forms of revelry with which Halloween was observed in the United States at the time. She makes no mention of trick-or-treating or any ritual even resembling it.

A still from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Of course, while trick-or-treating might not have existed (or at least was not widely practised) in the United States in 1919, tricks were a well established Halloween tradition.  Playing pranks while wearing costumes on Halloween dates back to at least the 18th Century in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. Irish and Scottish immigrants quite naturally brought the tradition of Halloween tricks to the United States. Among the stranger pranks described in Ruth Edna Kelley's The Book of Hallowe'en is bags of flour being dumped on passers-by. This odd custom is also referenced by Sally Benson in her semi-autobiographical vignette "October, 1903", one of the vignettes in her series 5135 Kensington. First published in the November 1 1941 issue of The New Yorker and included in the 1942 book Meet in St. Louis, the vignette describes a custom whereby individuals are hit with flour and said to be "killed". This custom would later be portrayed in the musical based on the book, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

From ringing doorbells and hitting people with flour there would not seem to be too much of a leap from threatening people with pranks (that is, "tricks") if they do not hand over treats.  Quite simply, at some point in the early 20th Century perhaps some enterprising child or group of children realised that they could use the threat of the typical pranks performed at Halloween as a means of getting treats in return. Don't want your windows soaped or your outhouse turned over? Then hand over the goodies!  Indeed, this would explain the origin of the phrase "trick or treat" quite easily. Of course, here it must be pointed out that we really don't know how or why trick-or-treating came about at all.

The historic first mention of "trick or treat"
While trick-or-treating is often thought of as an American custom, the first known use of the phrase "trick-or-treat" in print came from Blackie, Alberta in Canada. In the November 4 1927 issue of the Herald (published in Lethbridge, Alberta) there appeared an article entitled, "'Trick or Treat' Is Demand." After mentioning the usual, harmless pranks pulled at Halloween, the article states, "The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word 'trick or treat' to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing."

Curiously, while the phrase "trick-or-treat" is first mentioned in Canada in 1927, it is not until 1934 that it is first mentioned in the United States. In fact, 1934 seems to be a bit of a banner year for the custom, with no less than two newspapers referencing trick-or-treating and another describing what would seem to be trick-or-treating, even though the phrase "trick-or-treating" is not used. The first article, "Halloween Pranks Keep Police on Hop", was from the November 1 1934 Oregon Journal (published in Portland). There it was reported, "Other young goblins and ghosts, employing modern shakedown methods, successfully worked the 'trick or treat' system in all parts of the city." The second article, "The Gangsters of Tomorrow", from the November 2 1934 issue of the The Helena Independent in Montana, described how a child would "...give a citizen every opportunity to comply with his demands before pulling any rough stuff." The article gives an unusual variation of the now traditional exhortation, "Madam, we are here for the usual purpose, 'trick or treat.'"

While both the Oregon Journal and The Helena Independent characterise trick-or-treating in terms suggesting a form of extortion, the November 3 1934 "Front Views and Profiles" column by June Provines in The Chicago Tribune treats the young custom slightly more positively. Although neither the terms "trick-or-treat" or "trick-or-treating" appear,  it would seem the author is clearly describing the custom. Quite simply, Miss Provines writes that the children of Aurora, Illinois "..have a unique way of celebrating Halloween. Instead of soaping windows and ringing doorbells they get into costume and go from door to door asking for handouts." She notes that if "...no contribution is forthcoming they soap the windows in revenge." Although the words "trick-or-treat" never appear, the "Front Views and Profiles" column is clearly describing trick-or-treating.

Much like the earliest articles in the Herald from Lethbridge, Alberta, the Oregon Journal, and The Helena Independent, various accounts of trick-or-treating in American newspapers in the Thirties tended to describe the custom in terms that bring to mind extortion or other rackets associated with gangsters. The title of an article from the November 1 1938 issue of The Reno Evening Gazette in Nevada was simply, "Youngsters Shakedown Residents". An article from the October 30 1938 issue of The Los Angeles Times, "Halloween Pranks Plotted by Youngsters of Southland", refers to groups of trick-or-treaters as "diminutive Halloween goon squads". While many articles couched trick-or-treating in such terms, there were also many articles on the custom  from the Thirties that seem sympathetic to the trick-or-treaters. Much of the reason that trick-or-treating was treated sympathetically by many adults at the time could be that with the adoption of trick-or-treating there appears to have been a reduction in the usual sorts of vandalism that had characterised Halloween in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. For example, the aforementioned article from The Reno Evening Gazette noted that it was "... one of the quietest Halloweens on record."

Gloria DeHaven bobbing for apples
As to the treats children "extorted" from adults in the Thirties at Halloween, they were not always the candy that is usually handed out today. The aforementioned Oregon Journal article notes, "Many women have some apples, cookies or doughnuts for them." The aforementioned "Front Views and Profiles" column from The Chicago Tribune reported that the children are "..given pop corn balls, apples, or candy." The aforementioned Los Angeles Times article notes trick-or-treaters "...are bought off with cookies, candy, tickless alarm clocks or the price of an ice cream cone." It would appear in the Thirties that treats often varied and many times (such as the popcorn balls) they were home-made.

Of course, from the very beginning trick-or-treating has involved children dressing up in costumes. In the early days of trick-or-treating Halloween costumes would often be home-made. As might be expected, such traditional Halloween favourites as ghosts, witches, devils and skeletons were popular in the Thirties.  Also popular were clowns (although not of the creepy kind), cowboys, police officers, and assorted other occupations as choices for costumes. That having been said, even as trick-or-treating took hold in the United States and Canada in the Thirties, children's choices in costumes were beginning to change. Such companies as Ben Cooper, Collegeville, and Halco had entered the Halloween costume industry in the Twenties. By the Thirties they had started manufacturing costumes of licensed characters. From 1935 to 1938 Halco made costumes based on the characters from the comic strip Thimble Theatre, including Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy. Starting in 1937, Ben Cooper produced costumes of various Walt Disney characters under F. S. Fishbach, Inc.'s "Spotlight" label. During the Thirties Collegeville manufactured a "Lone Ranger" costume.

Today it is not unusual for trick-or-treaters to be accompanied by adults, but in the Thirties this does not seem to be the case. Indeed, from the earliest articles it would appear that trick-or-treating was instigated by the youngsters themselves (The Chicago Tribune's "Front Views and Profiles" column from November 3 1934 being an example). The earliest articles about trick-or-treating do not mention adults accompanying trick-or-treaters on their rounds What is more, it appears from the earliest articles children had to actually explain the whole concept of "trick-or-treating" to adults.

It would also appear that from the first references to trick-or-treating in the United States that it was originally a phenomenon in the West and the Mid-West. The three earliest references to trick-or-treating in the United Statse are from Oregon, Montana, and Illinois. As the Thirties progressed, reports of trick-or-treaing began to appear further and further east. There was a story in The Hammond Times in Indiana on October 31 1938. There was a story on trick-or-treating in The Oil City Derrick in Pennsylvania on October 29 1939. By the late Thirties or early Forties trick-or-treating appears to have reached the East Coast. There was an article on trick-or-treating in The Cumberland Evening Times in Maryland on October 24 1942.

It was in 1939 that the first reference to trick-or-treating occurred in a national publication. It was in the article "A Victim of the Window Soaping Brigade?" by Doris Hudson Moss in the November 1939 issue of The American Home. The article detailed her success over the past few years in hosting trick-or-treaters. Another early reference from a national publication occurred in a 1941 issue of the magazine Gleanings in Bee Culture, wherein it included "some toothsome recipes for some honey goodies that you can hand out to these would-be pranksters."

A 1946 Curtiss Candy ad
Not only would national publications take greater notice of trick-or-treating as the Forties progressed, but it was not long before the candy industry took notice as well. In the 1942 annual report for Brach's it was noted, "As one of the three biggest candy occasions of the year, Halloween found Brach's ready with a full line for the Trick or Treat set." By the mid to late Forties candy manufacturers were taking full advantage of trick-or-treating to sell their products. The advertising of Curtiss Candy Company, Mars, and other candy companies in the mid to late Forties often referenced trick-or-treating. It would not be long before candy would be the chosen treat given out to trick-or-treaters.

Candy manufacturers weren't the only advertisers to capitalise on trick-or-treating. A 1946 advertisement for the soft drink featured a couple greeting trick-or-treaters at their door with bottles of 7 Up. A 1950 ad for Coca-Cola featured a jack o'lantern filled with bottles of Coca-Cola and the slogan "Treat 'em right with Coke!"

It should perhaps not be surprising that the earliest references to trick-or-treating in pop culture stem from the Forties. What might possibly be the first reference to trick-or-treating in film occurred in the classic comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Although the film was shot in 1941, Warner Bros. delayed the release of Arsenic and Old Lace until the stage play (upon which it was based) finished its run. Early in the film there is a scene in which Aunts Abby and Martha give trick-or-treaters at their door two carved pumpkins. Following the war trick-or-treating would also be referenced on popular radio shows. Trick or treating was at the centre of the plot of November 1 1946 episode, "Halloween Show", of The Baby Snooks Show. Trick-or-treating also played a role in the plots of the episode "Jack Goes Trick or Treating"  of The Jack Benny Programme (which aired on October 31 1948) and the episode "Haunted House" of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (which also aired on October 31 1948).

By the late Forties and early Fifties trick-or-treating had become an established custom that was observed nationwide in the United States. It was in 1950 that the fundraising programme Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF began. It was in 1949 that  Mary Emma Allison, a pastor's wife, observed a UNICEF booth taking a collection for funds to send powdered milk to malnourished children around the world. It occurred to Mrs. Allison that children could collect for UNICEF while trick-or-treating. She then enlisted both her own children and the children in her community to collect money for UNICEF on Halloween in 1950. It was in 1953 that the United States Committee for UNICEF began actively promoting the campaign. The campaign had spread throughout the nation by the Sixties, and in 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson declared October 31 to be "UNICEF Day" in the United States. Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF would play a central role in the plot of the Bewitched episode "To Trick-Or-Treat or Not to Trick-Or-Treat" that aired on October 30 1969.

Given the prevalence of trick-or-treating in the Fifties, it should come as no surprise that it was referenced in the popular culture of the era. The October 31 1952 episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, "Halloween Party", portrayed the Nelsons as besieged by trick-or-treaters. It was that same year that Walt Disney released the classic Donald Duck animated short "Trick or Treat". As might be expected, the candy industry continued to exploit the holiday. A 1953 ad for Dubble Bubble Gum featured  a cartoon of a woman handing out treats to youngsters with the slogan, "Treat the kids on Halloween with Fleer's Dubble Bubble Gum." A 1955 Mars ad stated, "When 'TRICKS OR TREATS' is the question, here are two perfect answers: Mars 6-Packs--Mars '24s'."

From the Fifties into the Sixties there would be a shift in the sort of costumes children wore while trick-or-treating. Following the end of World War II costumes of licensed characters manufactured by Ben Cooper, Collegeville, and Halco became a popular choice for many youngsters. The shift from children's tastes in costumes from the traditional ghosts and goblins to the latest television heroes was significant enough to be noted in an Associated Press article by Sid Moody published on October 31 1960. In the article, Harry Mirsky, a representative for J. Halpern Company (better known as Halco), is quoted as saying, "Oh, we still sell devil suits, and witches and hobgoblins, but we're getting away from those weirdies. Television did it. Nowadays kids don't want to be skeletons. They want to dress up like the characters they see on TV." Ben Cooper and Collegeville would continue to dominate the Halloween costume market into the Nineties.

As prevalent as trick-or-treating had become in the Fifties, it was perhaps inevitable that urban legends surrounding the custom would arise. Namely, the early Sixties saw the emergence of rumours of poisoned candy being handed out at Halloween. It is difficult to say why these rumours came about, although they may have originated in 1959 with a California dentist named William Shyne. That year William Shyne handed out 450 laxative tablets to trick-or-treaters. About thirty of them ate the tablets and became sick. Dr. Shyne was charged with "outrage of public decency" and "unlawful dispensing of drugs".  It seems possible that the tale of William Shyne distributing laxative tablets to trick-or-treaters could have gotten misconstrued as poison candy being distributed. Regardless, urban legends of poisoned candy persisted from the Sixties well into the Eighties. Despite this, according to sociologist Joel Best of the University of Delaware (who did an in-depth study of the phenomenon), there appears to be nearly no evidence of strangers randomly handing out poisoned candy to children on Halloween.

Of course, the urban legends regarding poisoned candy were probably helped greatly by a murder case in Houston, Texas in 1974. On October 31 1974 eight-year-old Timothy Marc O'Bryan died from eating Pixie Stix laced with cyanide. As it turned out, the young boy was given the Pixie Stix by his own father, Ronald Clark O'Bryan, who also gave cyanide-laced Pixie Stix to his daughter and three other children. Fortunately none of the other youngsters ate the Pixie Stix. The police soon figured out that Ronald Clark O'Bryan was the culprit as none of the houses visited were handing out Pixie Stix. Sadly, it seems that Timothy Marc O'Bryan's own father had murdered him for insurance money. Ronald Clark O'Bryan was executed by lethal injection on March 31 1984.

It was around 1967 that urban legends of sharp objects in trick-or-treat candy (needles, pins, razor blades, etc.) began to overtake the urban legends of poisoned candy. While these urban legends about sharp objects in Halloween candy would be prevalent throughout the late Sixties and into the Eighties, according to Joel Best every single instance of such candy tampering since 1959 has proven to be a hoax. Not only does it seem that there are not people randomly handing out poisoned candy to children at Halloween, there aren't people randomly handing out candy filled with needles or pins or razor blades either.

Unfortunately in 1982 trick or treating would feel the impact of a real life case of product tampering, although it had nothing to do with Halloween. On September 29 1982 a twelve year old Illinois girl died after taking a capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. Over the next few days six more people in the Chicago area died from cyanide laced doses of Tylenol. On October 5 1982 Johnson & Johnson issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol products.

As the first major case of product tampering in American history, not only would the Chicago Tylenol murders result in pharmaceutical companies developing new, tamper resistant packaging, but it would have a serious impact on the holiday of Halloween as it was celebrated in 1982. Many parents, concerned that similar product tampering might occur with regards to candy, refused to take their children out trick-or-treating that year.  Cities in New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Massachusetts outright banned trick-or-treating. Stores across the nation reported that candy sales had dropped 20 to 50 percent. The Tylenol scare even affected Halloween costume manufacturers, such as Ben Cooper and Collegeville, who saw their sales drop precipitously.

Fortunately Halloween and trick-or-treating would recover from the Tylenol Scare. In 1983 eight different Halloween costume manufacturers and the Toy Manufacturers of America formed the Halloween Celebration Committee in an effort to save the holiday. The Halloween Celebration Committee published a pamphlet entitled "13 Great Ways to Celebrate Halloween" in an effort to revitalise the holiday. Candy sales rebounded in 1984 and trick-or-treating resumed as it had in previous years.

That is not to say that trick-or-treating would not continue to change and evolve.  The Eighties would see a trend towards latex masks of the sort Don Post Studios had made since 1938 and a concurrent trend towards more realistic, more sophisticated costumes. Ben Cooper went out of business in the early Nineties. Collegeville was bought by younger rival company Rubies Costume Company at auction in 1996. The Nineties saw a return to people making their own costumes, and those costumes manufactured by costume companies were generally more realistic than the plastic masks and plastic smocks of the sort made by Ben Cooper, Collegeville, and Halco in the mid-20th Century.

My brother's car trunk
decorated for Trunk or Treat
There also developed a variant on trick-or-treating known as trunk-or-treat. Trunk-or-treating is a community event wherein children go from car to car in a parking lot, usually that of a school, church, city hall, or other community building. It is not known precisely where the first trunk-or-treat event was held, much less who came up with the idea or how they came up with it. It does seems as if it was a particularly attractive alternative for those churches that regarded Halloween as a "pagan" festival and trick-or-treating with it (at such churches children are encouraged to dress as characters from the Bible). Regardless, trunk-or-treating appears to have developed sometime in the mid-Nineties and exploded in popularity in 2006. Since then many communities in the United States and Canada have held their own "trunk-or-treat" events, even though trick-or-treating often continues to take place in those communities as well.

It has been 89 years since the phrase "trick-or-treat" first appeared in print. While trick-or-treating has changed over the years, there is little sign that it is declining in popularity. The American Retail Federation estimated that Americans would spend $2.1 to $2.6 billion on Halloween candy and $2.5 billion on costumes in 2015. Trick-or-treating is nearing its 100th anniversary, but it shows no sign of going out of style.

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