The ever-more early arrival of holiday merchandise is an unpleasant fact of modern life, but this is not another story about holiday creep. This is another story about a creepy holiday.
The consensus is that the lucrative, high treat/low trick modern Halloween we know today got started in Anoka, Minnesota in 1920, when civic leaders decided, after too many broken windows and overturned outhouses, that a socially acceptable, child-friendly celebration might redirect youthful exuberance toward more fun and less vandalism. The new, tamer Halloween celebration succeeded in redefining the holiday. By 1937, Anoka had convinced the US Congress to name it the “Halloween Capital of the World,” and the idea had spread far across the country.
After a hiatus in the 1940s due to World War II’s sugar rationing and blackout restrictions, Halloween came into its own as a children’s holiday in the 1950s and 1960s. Trick-or-treating kids initially wore homemade costumes, and newly-built suburbs resounded with gentle echoes of the rowdiness of the 1920s in the form not of overturned outhouses, but rather the occasional soaped window or toilet papered tree. The very real menace once associated with the holiday was a memory; the commercialization was well underway.
Due to widespread (and generally illegitimate) fears of poisoned candy, and allegations of razor blades concealed in apples, the holiday changed direction again by the early 1970s. Parents became more involved, using safety concerns as an impetus for hosting decoration-intensive parties, both private and public (often hosted by local schools). Now that the holiday had been moved into the public arena, where keeping up with the Joneses was crucial, store-bought costumes became more common than homemade ones, and adults got into the habit of wearing costumes, too.
Halloween was rapidly becoming more and more organized, with less emphasis on trick-or-treating, and more on polish and presentation. Period reporting indicates that in the mid-1970s Halloween was worth about “$400 million in candy sales and $37 million in costume rental and sales income.”
Clearly, the holiday that repeatedly came close to being banned forever has come a long, lucrative way. Originally a red-letter night for juvenile delinquents, and once merely a celebration for children, Halloween is now indisputably a big night for adults as well
As difficult as that bit of information may be to digest, what’s most remarkable is that the tremendous retail boon that comes each October 31st can be directly traced back to overturned outhouses more than 90 years ago.