The biggest difference was trick-or-treating. This seemingly timeless custom is actually a quite recent American invention. The ritual of costumes, doorbell-ringing, and expectation of booty appeared for the first time in different locations throughout the country in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that trick-or-treating became widespread on a national scale. And even then, candy wasn’t the obvious treat.
It took a while for candy to become what it is today, the very essence of Halloween. Going back even farther to the early decades of the century, before trick-or-treating spread across the land, candy didn’t have any special role to play in Halloween observance.
For youth, and especially boys, Halloween was the one night of the year when communities generally tolerated pranking, which might range from the clever or playful to the dangerous or destructive. Mailboxes, fences, streetcars, and gravestones were popular targets. The point was to cause mischief, not to gather treats. Halloween also wasn’t a gift-giving holiday, which in the case of Christmas and other early candy holidays provided the candy “hook.”
While the hooligans were out wreaking havoc, the more genteel would celebrate Halloween with parties. The menus and décor for these early Halloween festivities emphasized seasonal fruits. Pumpkins and apples were especially important. Making popcorn balls and fudge was sometimes part of the festive activities, but if there was purchased candy along the lines of candy corn or jelly beans, it was an afterthought, just a something over there with the nuts and favors.
When candy makers in the 1910s and 1920s looked for ways to grow their fall sales, Halloween barely registered as a potential marketing opportunity, even though they were already using holidays as opportunities to sell seasonal confections. Christmas and Easter were big candy events, already established with their candy traditions by 1900: boxed chocolates and hard candies for Christmas, jelly eggs and molded bunnies for Easter. Lagging not far behind in importance on the candy holiday calendar was Washington’s Birthday, to be celebrated with special marzipan cherries and cocoa-dusted logs. But special candies for Halloween? Not a one.