Americans will hand out 600 million pounds of candy this Halloween, making it the second-sweetest holiday on the books, trailing only Easter.
That’s a relatively modern phenomenon, the most recent permutation of an observance that stretches back more than 2,000 years, to the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, pronounced “sow-in,” rhymes with “cow-in.” The celebration was appropriated by Christianity in the 8th Century and renamed All Hallows to celebrate all those hallowed saints.
The traditional night of fun before the holiday, All Hallows Eve, morphed into Halloween along the way, bringing with it Celtic tales of ghosts and goblins and medieval traditions that involved roaming door to door in costume, begging for food or money.
The holiday came to America with Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 1800s, but it remained predominantly focused on the harvest, with apples and cider as the main treats.
Fast-forward to 1920. World War I is just over, and American Doughboys have come home with a sweet tooth from the candy and other treats included in their rations. American and Caribbean sugar producers have a banner year, creating a glut that trashes prices, making candy production an easy business for all comers.
Many of America’s most iconic candies were created at that time, including Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the Baby Ruth, Abba-Zaba, Bit-O-Honey, BB Bats, the Charleston Chew, Slo Pokes, Black Cows, Chuckles and Dubble Bubble chewing gum.
And Jujubes and Jujyfruits and Kits and Milk Duds, the Milky Way and Zero bars, Walnetto and O Henry!
1920 was also the first year in which a majority of Americans lived in cities, and the post-war period’s low unemployment and higher wages meant households could afford more store-bought goods. Homemade sweets were an early casualty, with retail candy replacing such traditional treats as doughnuts, taffy and candy apples.
Halloween was a godsend for manufacturers, who had been searching for another candy-focused fete to help even out sales between Easter and Christmas, their attempts to sweeten up George Washington’s birthday, St. Patrick’s Day and the Fourth of July having not quite taken off.
They found a willing ally in Herbert Hoover, then commerce secretary and on a campaign toeliminate inefficiency in business. (In doing so he stepped on so many other cabinet positions that he was known as “Secretary of Commerce and Under-Secretary of all other Departments.”)
“The confectioners were model clients of the Department of Commerce,” notes April Merleaux, a historian and the author of Sugar and Civilization. “They organized into industry associations, did cooperative national advertising campaigns, shared market information, used data generated by government-employed statisticians, and promoted modern business practices.”
Population density also helped spread the Halloween tradition, and by the 1950s it had become the widespread, kid-focused, costume-wearing, candy-grubbing event we know today. And, arguably, the perfect holiday for the perfectly planned neighborhoods of suburbia.
Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays. Not quite as good as Christmas, maybe, but certainly a notch above Easter, which also offered candy but required you to attend Mass.
In my day, during the early 1960s, neighborhood kids traveled in packs, sans parents, the older ones keeping an eye on the small fry. We were a ragtag bunch of pillowcase ghosts and wooden-sword pirates, others with a simple dime store plastic mask.
Homemade fudge or a popcorn ball were still common handouts when I was a trick-or-treater, even fresh-baked cookies or brownies. On the candy front, all those 1920s brands were still around, plus new treats like Smarties, Atomic Fire Balls, Sugar Babies and Bonomo Turkish Taffy.
There were three-packs of candy cigarettes, plus wax mini-bottles and sheets of candy buttons, as well as an assortment of loose pieces that ended up in the bottom of your bag, including circus peanuts, red vines and root beer barrels.
That I have as many of my own teeth as I do is a tribute to my parents, who confiscated our treat bags at the end of the night and doled the contents out so slowly that we often were eating candy corns at Christmas.
I’m happy to report they’re good anytime. Hope your entire month is a safe and happy one.