How Candy Conquered Halloween

Bloomberg View , October 30, 2014

In her book "Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure," retired Rutgers University literature professor Samira Kawash investigates the surprisingly neglected story of how business and technological innovations turned the U.S. into what a 1907 visitor called “the great candy eating nation.” Candy, she argues, is essential to understanding the history of how Americans eat. It was, Kawash writes, the “first ready-to-eat processed food, the original ancestor of all our fast, convenient, fun, imperishable, tasty, highly advertised brand-name snacks and meals.” For more than a century, we’ve simultaneously gorged on the stuff and felt guilty about it. It’s an intensified version of our ambivalent and fickle attitudes toward abundant, convenient, mass-produced food in general.

“The candy that gives us some of our happiest experiences is the same candy that rots our teeth, ruins our appetite, and sucks tender innocents into a desperate life of sugar addiction,” she writes. “Candy joins the ideas of pleasure and poison, innocence and vice, in a way that’s unique and a bit puzzling.” Candy is, one might say, both trick and treat. With Halloween in mind, I interviewed Kawash by e-mail.

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.

Q: Candy corn is a sweet we only see at Halloween (and it isn’t particularly popular with kids who get it). What’s its story?

A: Actually I think candy corn is making a huge comeback. Maybe not as candy proper, but candy corn is emerging as an exciting new flavor for everything from marshmallows to Oreos to M&Ms. It’s funny, since the flavor of candy corn is mostly just a blast of sweet. And personally, much as I love candy corn, I have yet to taste a candy-corn flavor confection that was anything but dreadful. Taste aside, it’s obvious that candy corn as an idea is irresistible: Today those bands of yellow, orange and white just scream “Halloween.” Most people don’t know that candy corn was originally a year-round penny candy. Back in the 1880s when that kind of “mellowcreme” was invented, there were all kinds of agriculturally inspired shapes, from pea pods and apples to walnuts and corn cobs. Since corn was harvested in the fall, candy corn became a popular treat for autumn-themed decorating and for Halloween parties. Now that candy is so closely identified with Halloween, candy corn has been crowned the unofficial mascot for the holiday.

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.

Q: What does Halloween candy tell us about the meaning and value of brands?

A: One of the biggest casualties of the poison treats scares of the 1970s was homemade sweets. In the 1960s and before, it was totally fine to give out something you’d made yourself. But once people got it in their heads that maniacs were out there trying to kill their children with Halloween treats, everything homemade was suspect. After all, you didn’t know whose hands had touched that cookie and what scary ingredients might be hidden under the chocolate chips. Same for unwrapped candies and off-brand candies: If it wasn’t sealed in a recognizable, major brand factory label, then it was guilty until proven innocent. National advertised candy brands were familiar and trusted, unlike that spooky neighbor who just might be an axe murderer. It’s one of the huge successes of processed food marketing, to make us trust and feel good about the factory food, and to distrust and denigrate the homemade and the neighborly. I think this is starting to swing back in the other direction though, at least in urban areas. Today, consumers are pretty obsessed with the artisanal and the small batch, and will pay a huge premium for candy that is nothing like Hershey or Mars. On the other hand, every year the candy that’s wrapped for Halloween treating gets more and more homogeneous, and the national brands rule.

Q: Your book starts with a story in which another parent compares your child’s jelly beans to crack cocaine. How does Halloween candy survive in a culture where candy is seen as dangerous?

A: Well, number one is, kids love it! And I think our society really does have a very ambivalent relation to candy, which includes both extremely positive and extremely negative feelings. I do feel like the candy part of Halloween has gone overboard, though. There are so many fun things about the holiday, but all too often kids end up obsessed with just piling up as much candy as they can. When kids are just marching from house to house and holding out their bag, trick-or-treating seems kind of joyless, more like work. Hmm, I wonder where they learned that?