It’s that magical time of the year, when little ghosts and goblins appear. Scampering up and down the streets, scurrying around with bags of treats. Trick or treating back when I was eight; oh, the candy bars then were truly great!
Halloween has changed much over the years. Halloween Trick or Treating in my neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri growing up in the 1950’s and early 60’s frequently featured homemade baked goods like cookies, cupcakes, brownies, Rice Krispie treats, homemade popcorn balls, and more — all carefully bundled in plastic wrap. Homemade candied apples were a real treat, along with homemade taffy and fudge at some homes.
And every year — without fail — a few slices of cake wrapped in plastic wrap which always seemed to find their way to the bottom of the treat bag to inevitably end up smashed flat or crumbled before I got home. But cake crumbs are cake nonetheless, so nothing ever went to waste.
Cupcakes, cookies, and brownies always seemed to survive better in the bag than a slice of cake for some reason. Despite being young, even then I appreciated the all-day effort of having baked and decorated what had to be several handmade cakes for slicing, wrapping, and handing out on Halloween night, and knew their hearts were in the right place with it all. But still find myself asking and wondering to this day — really, what were those folks thinking to hand out a wrapped slice of cake for a treat bag?
Appearing a few decades ahead of their time perhaps, there were also a few health conscious homes in the neighborhood who handed out fresh apples along with the occasional orange, banana, or assorted nuts tossed into the bag. We politely said “thank you”, never wanting ungratefulness to poison the well for next year in case they came to their senses at some point, but shaking our heads leaving just the same.
Older folks were known for frequently giving out pennies and other loose change, along with an occasional pencil or two. I always just figured they were older and not able to travel to the store easily to stock up on the really good stuff, but trying as best they could, nevertheless. And that was good enough for us, with “old people” perhaps more highly regarded and respected in those days. We don’t hear the term “hardening of the arteries” much anymore. I think that’s because the medical and drug folks can all charge more for terms like “arteriosclerosis” and “atherosclerosis” because it sounds much more serious. But, may be wrong. Getting back to Halloween, then.
Bubble Gum, Tootsie Roll Pops, Tootsie Rolls, Wax Bottles, Caramels, Jaw Breakers (always a favorite of mine!), Sugar Daddies, Jelly Beans, Candy Corn, Boston Baked Beans, Milk Duds, Caramels, Saf-T-Pop Suckers with their looped handles, Circus Peanuts, Licorice, and boxes of Cracker Jacks helped fill out the treat bag. Red Spanish Peanuts were popular, too. Many of the items simply tossed loose and unwrapped into the bag, of course. Individually wrapped packages were only just beginning to come onto the scene at the time.
Some folks didn’t bother with the process of making a popcorn ball, choosing instead to merely wrap the loose popcorn in plastic wrap gathered and tied with a twisty tie. I usually jammed those into a side pocket for a handy street snack along the way later. It was good because it was both filling and wouldn’t sticky-up your hands like candy.
All of this, and of course not to leave out the truly treasured and most sought-after Halloween prize — Candy Bars! There were only two sizes of candy bars generally available at that time — ‘Full Size’ and the larger “I May Need Help Carrying This One Home Size”.
Some homes offered cold apple cider to refresh on an occasionally warm evening, or hot chocolate in paper cups on especially chilly nights. Every home seemed warm and welcoming, and homes without a front porch light on to welcome and light the way for visitors were rare indeed.
Growing up in the Midwest, Halloween nights could and did vary from warm to chilly to bone-shivering cold. Nobody under the age of adult ever wanted to cover their costume with a raincoat or parka!
I remember trick or treating in the snow twice. How could one forget something so truly magical as that? And recall more than a few rainy nights in the time when trick or treat bags were truly paper bags in every sense of the word, long before plastic bags and plastic tote pumpkins arrived on the scene. More than a few friends had the bottom burst on a rain-soaked bag, dumping all of their Halloween treasures on the wet sidewalk.
Fortunately, I escaped that calamitous fate thru the years, likely due in no small part to my beloved Mother making me carry an umbrella with me, no doubt. Carefully tilted to protect the treat bag held high and dry, naturally.
It almost goes without saying that every stop required us to actually come inside the house and perform in the living room — tell a joke, tell a story, sing a song, dance, do a trick, stand on our head, or do “something” to earn our Treats. Unearned giveaways were rare. Somersaults were always a big hit for the littlest kids to do.
A good costume got you in the door, but that alone would not fill the treat bag. We were all expected to work for our candy and treats, patiently standing in line awaiting our turn to perform. With only three channels on the black and white television sets and dodgy reception most times, a steady line of kids performing was great entertainment rivaling and surpassing anything on the TV for the night. So, entertain we did. Milton Berle and Jack Benny would have to wait for their turns that night, too.
“Knock Knock” jokes, while usually not earning the highest performance awards of a candy bar, were always reliable in a pinch to rescue the situation when the strange kid in front of you stole your best joke or trick, so the astute Trick or Treater always kept a few entertaining jokes in reserve just in case.
Orange you going to give me some candy?
Although that particular little diddy ran the risk of getting you an orange instead of a Baby Ruth.
But a good “Knock Knock” joke could usually be relied upon to be rewarded with at least a popcorn ball. If the household had just heard the same joke three times before you arrived, you were probably doomed for pennies, though. And maybe a short lecture about coming better prepared next year.
And it did happen occasionally, as hot new jokes seemed to cycle thru the neighborhood in a given year —“Better tell me another one son, or it’s three pennies for you. I just heard that one five times before you got here! What else you got in your trick bag?”
Trick or Treating done correctly was literally a performance art, requiring hours and hours of pre-planning, preparation, and dedication. And on Halloween night, it was a process that could not be rushed if anticipated rewards were to be realized. A good performance took both time and commitment to the craft. On a successful night, multiple stops home might be needed to offload full bags and then head back out for more. Candy bars being the truly sought-after prize, of course!
It was good to work together, not only in your group so everyone had their own unique performance art for the night, but also coordinating with other groups on the street, as it could save a lot of walking and shoe leather. We never realized at the time that Halloween night was a great exercise in developing teamwork skills.
“Don’t bother stopping here, Jim. Old lady Jones is already out of candy and dumped pennies in our bags. But the Haskins has still got Snickers I heard.”
Forewarned, time could be saved by heading only towards the high rollers still handing out candy bars and cupcakes. By 6:45, everybody on the street knew which house was giving out what, which naturally led to candy bar homes running out before the Bazooka Gum, safety suckers, and fruit houses.
When you spied groups of kids running towards a particular house, you knew to hurry there next. When you saw kids walking down the driveway shaking their sacks and hearing “thump, thump, thump,” you knew they’d been fruited. So unless really hungry for an apple, best to pass that one by and come back later. Chances were pretty good they’d still be open for business at nine.
Can’t speak for others, but on a few occasions, I was treated with Silver Dollars. Honest-to-goodness, better-than-Musketeers, real Silver Dollars! Sometimes it was wise not to be “too” disguised when visiting favorite neighbors, or those you had helped with summer yard work or fall leaf-raking.
But that was without a doubt at the same time both the awesomest and bothersomest treat one could receive, being simply too special to spend and convert to candy. Gather enough pennies and nickles from the bottom of the bag and you could quickly convert that into cool, hard, candy. Not so with silver dollars. That just never seemed right to even consider doing.
I still have Halloween silver dollars stashed safely away in the back of a dresser drawer tucked beneath layers of underwear for safekeeping. Back in the day, no self-respecting burglar (or sister) would think of rummaging thru someone’s underwear drawer for loot. The same silver dollars still tucked safely away from years ago I should perhaps add, not the same underwear, of course. Just, to be clear on that point.
It probably goes without saying, but that stashing away part never would have happened with a Three Musketeers.
Costumes were usually homemade, wholly or at least partly by the kids themselves. Big-footed clowns, cowboys and Lone Rangers with masks, knights with aluminum foil helmets carrying cardboard or wooden swords and shields, Indians in feathers and war paint, policemen, miniature firefighters, princesses with capes and crowns, angels with halos and wings, red-caped devils complete with garden pitchforks, army soldiers in their fathers’ oversized WWII and Korean War gear and helmets, scarecrows stuffed with straw, and ugly-nosed, warty witches with brooms. A few Tinmen from Oz here and there, but that was a hard costume to pull off without a lot of help from parents.
Along with many a hobo, most patterned after Red Skelton’s famous “Freddie the Freeloader” character at the time. It was a fun costume which I employed a few times, raiding Dad’s closet for over-sized, baggy clothes, and a hat. He never would part with one of his cigars in order to pull off the complete ensemble look, though.
All accompanied by the predictable number of white-sheeted ghosts floating over the sidewalks, of course. Skeletons were fairly rare in those days because that was mostly a store-bought costume that neither kids nor parents wanted to admit to having to resort to, as everyone took pride in their self-made costumery.
We talked about them a lot in name but no one ever really knew what a Goblin was to make a costume for it. It was just a creature of myth and folklore that we did not want to run into on the street that night because chances were pretty good it wouldn’t be a kid in a costume. Ghosts with eye holes were generally considered pretty safe to approach, though.
Clearly the most outstanding costume I remember was when the older, bigger, “I’m-better-than-you-are” neighbor kid across the street’s father made him the scariest and true-to-life realistic Headless Horseman costume since Ichabod Crane galloped on a plow horse thru Sleepy Hollow, complete with fake dripping blood around the collar and a glowing pumpkin carried on a stick for his head.
Apparently, his dad had worked on the Headless Horseman costume all summer in the garage, keeping it a secret from the neighborhood. Yeah, every block had one of those kids. Looking back on it now, he rather sadly always went out on Halloween as a group of one, by himself with his father in tow, helping to carry the bags of candy his son accumulated along the way. Yes — bags — plural. My father was at home, warm and dry, being entertained by endless troops of kids in the living room. His father was serving as a pack mule in the cold and wet. He only needed the costume, he was already doing all the work.
Sometimes I wondered if the Headless Horseman might have been happier in a white sheet running along with the rest of the neighborhood candy scroungers. It was hard to tell, even back then, if a jerk was alone because he was a jerk or if he was a jerk because he was alone. Whichever, receiving double rations and more from almost every house, the Headless Horseman made a record haul of candy that year that no one ever came close to matching and that we never heard the end of.
Runner-up for the best-ever costume was the same kid the year before, a square-headed Frankenstein costume his dad whipped up complete with bolts coming out of his neck and walking on platform shoes and getting double-treated again. Jerk.
Trick or Treating certainly isn’t anything like it used to be. Many more costumes come off racks in the store or delivered straight to the door from online ordering rather than pridefully homemade nowadays. The only Super Heroes in our minds back then were the parents giving out candy bars on the block.
Kids in our neighborhood now look at you like you have worms crawling out of your ears (which might actually be a good look for Halloween) if you ask them to do anything beyond hold their bag open to toss the candy inside. Forget the carefully staged and choreographed song and dance numbers in the living room. Some don’t even hold the bag open, expecting you to bend over and do that, too.
And regrettably, there are all the safety issues that never even crossed anyone’s mind in our time. Carrying a flashlight in order to “see and be seen” was all we were warned about. X-rays weren’t for candy. They were for broken bones when you missed the last porch step in the dark.
Most curious of all, candy now comes in the “Fun Sized” version, which try as I might, I still don’t see much fun in it. Talk about the ultimate Halloween trick!
Times change. But the Halloween magic of little children trick or treating doesn’t, and they aren’t seeing the night thru our memories, busily having fun and making memories of their own. Want to make a special memory for a little princess or cowboy? Give them a full-sized candy bar and watch their eyes light up! Although, you better be prepared for the onslaught up the driveway when the word hits the street! Some things never change.
Here are a few Halloween Safety Tips and Guidelines from the National Safety Council to help keep your children and little neighborhood trick-or-treaters safe on Halloween night.
Happy Halloween! Here’s hoping full-sized candy bars and overflowing treat bags for everyone! Please keep an eye out for the little Trick or Treaters in the streets, keep the front porch light on, and remember to “Scare Safe!”
Thanks as always for stopping by for a visit and spending part of your day with us! Little Red Bear and I are off now to work on our costumes. Think I’ll be a cowboy this year. I was going to go as an author, but Little Red Bear quickly pointed out that I masquerade as a writer every day so should try something different for Halloween. Yeah, that kind of took the fun out of that one, so a cowboy it is.
Happy Halloween! — Jim (and Red!)
“Every pumpkin knows that a Smile is an inexpensive way to change your looks!”
“A full bag, tired feet, dry socks, and sticky fingers meant it was a Happy Halloween.”– JRM
“A grandmother pretends she doesn’t know who you are on Halloween.” — Erma Bombeck
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3 thoughts on “Happy Halloween! — A Nostalgic Look Back at Trick or Treating in Days of Yore”
Yes, I remember the beautiful embroidered edges on the pillow cases. What a treasure and something so popular long ago. .
Thanks for the memories.
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What a fun, nostalgic, and completely entertaining Halloween post James.
We had the little plastic face costumes that were hard to see out of. One year, I remember being Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” that one was a big hit with the neighbors.
We used pillow cases for our candy. When we returned home, we’d dumped all out our treats to sort and trade.
Yes, homemade treats were a hit. Not these days.
They have taken the costumes out in most of the schools holding what they call, “Trunk or Treat” that are held in the evenings with children being lead around with their parents. If a school party is planned, it’s referred as a “Fall Party” in this day and age.
Oh, and who would of ever thought the adults would enjoy the costumes, if not more than the kids? Halloween costumes are big business. Why didn’t I think of that? Ha!
I have never been much for the scary part but enjoy watching the little ones dress up and enjoy their evening with friends and families.
Thanks for your awesome post.
I hope you and Little Red Bear enjoy your Halloween,
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Thanks for visiting with us and for the wonderful information, Rosie! My Mother embroidered the edges of most of our pillowcases, so they were kind of “Off Limits” for trick or treating, if you know what I mean. I have always enjoyed Halloween for the little kids trick or treating, but have never been into it an adult way and never into any kind of horror at Halloween or anytime. Hope you and yours have a fun Halloween this year! 🙂