Trick Or Treating Didn’t Always Mean Getting Candy

Not too long ago, Trick Or Treating didn't mean getting candy produced by large corporations.

Halloween Candy

Later today, children all over the country and, accompanied for the most part by one or both parents go door-to-door gathering candy from neighbors. It’s a tradition that we’ve all participated in either as the recipient and the giver so much that it comes as second nature. As Virginia Postrel notes in an interview with retired Rutgers University literature professor Samira Kawash, the author of  Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasurethere was a time when candy and Halloween had nothing to do with each other:

Question: When and how did candy become associated with Halloween? Was trick-or-treating just concocted to sell candy?

Answer: Would you believe the earliest trick-or-treaters didn’t even expect to get candy? Back in the 1930s, when kids first started chanting “trick or treat” at the doorbell, the treat could be just about anything: nuts, coins, a small toy, a cookie or popcorn ball. Sometimes candy too, maybe a few jelly beans or a licorice stick. But it wasn’t until well into the 1950s that Americans started buying treats instead of making them, and the easiest treat to buy was candy. The candy industry also advertised heavily, and by the 1960s was offering innovative packaging and sizes like mini-bars to make it even easier to give out candy at Halloween. But if you look at candy trade discussions about holiday marketing in the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween doesn’t even get a mention.

Given the fact that mass marketed candy didn’t really become a phenomenon until after World War Two, this isn’t entirely surprising. Yes, companies like Hershey’s and Mars were around back then but it was also a time when to the extent people bought candy instead of making it at home, they would typically by buying it from a local store where it was handmade, or from companies that were local to specific areas. Such candy as likely more expensive than what we are familiar with today, at least relatively speaking given what family income was like at the time, and thus it would have been unlikely that people would be buying it in mass amounts to give away to kids who come to the door. The other side of the coin, of course, is that this was an era when women were more likely to be at home rather than working, so homemade treats were more common and the convenience of the bag of candy from Wal-Mart wasn’t even an option. Then, of course, there’s the fact that the Great Depression made it harder for people to afford relative luxuries like candy and sweets to begin with, never mind buying such things just to give them away. So, the idea that the “treat” that came with “Trick Or Treat” in the 1930s would be something like a toy, or coins, isn’t all that unusual.

Even when I was Trick Or Treating as a child in the 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon to get something other than candy from one of the neighbors, especially it if was an older couple. Small amounts of change, like pennies and nickles were common, as were some homemade treats such as popcorn balls or, one year in particular, a neighbor who gave out Candy Apples. As a kid, of course, the expectation had set in by then that you’d get candy so it wasn’t always thrilling to get loose change or a toy or something like that, but it did happen. At some point, though, those types of treats started to disappear. To a large degree, of course, that was due to the candy companies using advertising to turn Halloween into being synonymous with the receipt of candy, but there were also other factors as well.

I can recall when I was still young enough to go out on October 31st that one first started to hear about alleged tampering with treats given out on Halloween. This would include razor blades in apples or pieces of homemade candy, poison, and other such things. By the time I was in my final years of Trick Or Treating, I can remember sitting at the kitchen table with my Mom as we went through everything I had gotten so she could “check” it. Postrel asked Kawash what her research had discovered about this phenomenon:

Q: You write about what you call “Halloween sadist legends.” Do these perennial tales of poisoned candy and razor blades in apples have any basis in truth? How are they connected to the non-Halloween history of candy?

A: Every Halloween, some earnest civic group reminds parents to be alert for “tampering” that might reveal some poison or drug or sharp thing lurking in the innocent candy loot. And how many instances of such tampering have been documented? Almost none. When there is actual harm, it almost always turns out to be traced to one of three causes: either a malevolent adult meant to hurt a child under cover of the anonymous Halloween sadist, or a child was accidentally poisoned and adults tried to cover it up by pointing fingers at a murky murderous stranger, or someone (usually a kid) wanted to get attention by planting evidence and then “discovering” a tainted treat. It’s gruesome to say it, but the myth of the Halloween sadist turns out to be quite useful if you are hoping to get away with murder.

What fascinated me as I researched the history of candy was discovering how often candy has been blamed when something bad happens, even before the Halloween scares of the 1970s. It turns out that “poison candy” is an idea as old as mass-produced candy, going back to the 1880s. And as with the “Halloween sadist,” poison candy was mostly myth. People found it easy to believe that candy was harmful, even when it wasn’t. It was a novel form of food, entirely artificial, entirely for pleasure. A lot of people looked at those bright colors and strange flavors and concluded that it couldn’t possibly be safe.

Truth or not, though, the stories about tainted treats likely contributed greatly to the end of homemade treats as Halloween Treats that would be handed out to children, and it’s somewhat understandable. It’s far easier to tell if a “Fun Size” Milky Way bar wrapped in its plastic wrapper has been tampered with than it would be for something that is homemade and, say, wrapped in Saran Wrap or some similar product. Additionally, as the nature of neighborhoods changed and it became less likely that parents would know the people that their children were receiving treats from — something that was largely true of the neighbors I would go to with friends on Halloween as a child — the less likely there would be a trust factor in accepting something unconventional for Halloween. There’s obviously some paranoia involved there, of course, since it’s entirely probable that someone you know could do something improper, but the trust factor of  familiarity that is a part of our daily interactions with people so it’s no surprise it would play a role when children are involved.

In any case, as your children bring their bags or pumpkins filled with commercially available treats home tonight, it’s worth remembering that there was a time not too long ago when it Halloween was quite different.

Photo via Flickr user Luke Jones under a Creative Commons License

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Popular Culture, , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. grumpy realist says:

    Someone cynical would wonder whether someone associated with the candy companies had a hand in nudging those “poisoned treats” stories to the forefront.

    I remember getting a lot of homemade cookie bars, popcorn balls, and apples. Hersey bars were for those who didn’t want to spend the time.

    Never any problems with poisoning, although I did get a tummy ache once after eating all the stuff I had collected at one fell swoop.

  2. pylon says:

    I too miss the good old days.

    “We can’t bust heads like we used to. But we have our ways. One trick is to tell stories that don’t go anywhere. Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m’shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. “Gimme five bees for a quarter,” you’d say. Now where were we… oh yeah. The important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. I didn’t have any white onions, because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones… “

  3. shopaholic918 says:

    I grew up in the 70’s and also experienced homemade treats, the elusive and special candy apple being among the most treasured! As I get older, I am more nostalgic about homemade costumes and makeup (like the year my brother was The Hulk and thus painted green with my mom’s green eyeshadow) and I was Raggedy Ann (I already had the freckles but we made them red!).

    Let’s not talk about candy inspection. My parents were insane about it and I was worse (but I also used candy inspection time to steal my favorites first!)

    Happy Halloween!

  4. beth says:

    I was trick or treating back in the 60’s and while I don’t remember getting a lot of homemade treats, I do remember getting things like unwrapped hard candy or candy corn or large size wrapped candy bars cut into thirds. I guess the snack size candies hadn’t come out yet. There were one or two houses that gave out whole candy bars – there was always a line at their door! Trick or treat for Unicef was big then too. I can remember one woman saying she’d give me candy or charity money but not both. I remember choosing the charity money – I guess I was a bleeding heart liberal all the way back then too.

  5. Nikki says:

    Only someone who has no idea how history works, wouldn’t realize that store-bought candy wasn’t given out in the early days of trick-or-treating.

    Postrel had nothing else to chat about?

  6. Scott says:

    Back when I was little in the 60s (on Long Island), we made popcorn balls to hand out and then went trick or treating with zeal, carefully plotting out the most efficient routes to maximize our haul. Thus began my career in project management. We also had our little “Trick or Treat for Unicef” cartons to collect pennies.

    Didn’t worry about tainted candy then although today I carefully go through the kids’s bags to sift out the very dangerous Snickers and Milky Way bars.

  7. shopaholic918 says:

    Also too, ask me about the time our class collected the most UNICEF money and got to meet Danny Kaye.

    Yes ma’am!

  8. Tyrell says:

    When I was a child we would actually be invited into some houses and were treated to cake, cup cakes, punch, popcorn, and other goodies. Now a days a parent would not think about letting their child do that.
    If a person gave out apples, the apples usually wound up on their roof!!
    Today I have noticed a trend. Out of around 400 trick or treaters last year, about half were 16+ years old, fully dressed in really effective costumes. There is a house down the street where the owner told me they had over three thousand dollars invested in Halloween costumes. A local Halloween store had people lined up the other day, waiting for costumes.
    Halloween is big business, no doubt about it.

  9. Bruce Henry says:

    @pylon: I would really like to hear the end of that story. Does it have one?

  10. pylon says:

    @Bruce Henry: you’d have to ask Grampa Simpson.

  11. pylon says:

    OK, I’m pretty much a senior citizen, and for sure older than most of you, but even when I was a kid, homemade treats were the exception. And not the preference either.

  12. Neil Hudelson says:


    Out of around 400 trick or treaters last year

    Um, what?? What type of neighborhood do you live in? Seriously, I grew up in rural areas, moved to the suburbs post-college, and now live smack downtown in a large city. I’ve had, AT MOST, 50 people knock on my door. Multiply that (generously) at 4 kids per knock and I’m only reaching half of what you are.

    I’m not calling b.s. (per se), just curious if this was accurate or (as we all do) some exaggeration for the sake of storytelling.

  13. ernieyeball says:

    @pylon:..homemade treats were the exception. And not the preference either.

    Heard that!
    (DOB 1-3-1948)

  14. Tyrell says:

    @Neil Hudelson: We are in a development and what happens is that word gets around that the people here give out a good amount of candy. Last year we fixed 320 small bags, ran out, and gave out our gum, microwave popcorn, packs of peanut butter crackers, and individual bags of chips. This went on until about 10:30. Some churches brought vans through, and cars lined up and down the streets.
    Each year we get more. Weather and temperature can have an effect, but not much.

  15. just me says:

    I never got home made treats (I was also a 70’s child) but I did get pencils, Apple’s, and other non candy items. My dentist (who we knew well) gave out toothbrushes and while my mom liked it fine I admit I preferred the houses with candy.

  16. just me says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    There are some neighborhoods around here that probably see 400 or more trick or treaters. Our town has some very trick or treat unfriendly areas (long roads with no sidewalks or street lights) so a couple of neighborhoods get adopted by kids who live on those streets. My own kids always borrowed neighborhoods because we live on one of the unfriendly streets. One neighborhood had a family that did a mini haunted house for free that was a huge hit.

  17. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @beth: My mom used to ask the children who were trick or treating for UNICEF if they realized that the money was going to Communist dictators who were starving the children in their countries. She refused to give money to UNICEF trick or treaters.

    Wing nuttery has a long history, too.

  18. Tony W says:

    We had 1300 – about average for my neighborhood, and we ran out of candy at 8:15 PM. Most of my neighbors ran out by then as well, and the throngs were on their way back home well before 9 PM.

    The beautiful thing is that these hordes descend on my neighborhood from the inner city and leave it just as nice as when they arrived. Generally they are the most polite people who come and collect candy from the 1%ers, and they keep their kids off the grass and force them to say “thank you”. Delightful evening.

  19. Tyrell says:

    @just me: We would have probably hit 400. At around 6:00 they started and it was steady. Cars lined up and big groups. Then at 8:30 a big thunderstorm came through and things really slowed down to a trickle. Last few came up around 10:00. We did have some candy left over. Without the storm, 400 at least.
    The big treat for us is to watch the costumes and make up. It gets better every year. I am trying to find out how to make my own strobe lights.