Halloween has been celebrated in various forms by various cultures for a couple of thousand years. Yet modern trick-or-treating — the practice of children dressing in costume and going door to door to collect candy — didn’t take hold in this country until the 1920s, and it took a while for the new tradition to become standardized. Therefore, it was the parents of the Boomer Generation who had the first sweet taste of what this heretofore minor holiday was to become.
When you think about it, the Boomer Generation was the first group that was chronologically able to elevate the traditions and form them into a purely secular paean to sugary excess, but we have the Greatest Generation to thank for opening the door for us. As our parents grew, and the practices and customs of modern Halloween spread across the country, it was a rather low-key event. Just when the new traditions were beginning to take flight, the Great Depression ruined the fun. Several austere years meant limited opportunity for a family to have disposable income for such trivial matters. When World War II entered the scene, our parents were out of their prime trick-or-treating years. As if robbed of a piece of their childhood, it would seem they held a collective memory from their shared history that surfaced again after the War, with us, their offspring.
The years after the War brought expansion — of housing and population — that are the hallmarks of our Boomer Generation. Our parents moved to the new houses that were cropping up just outside of the cities, as “suburbs” were the real estate word of the day. With the perfect storm of a burgeoning population, housing in close proximity that formed new neighborhoods of young families, and an increase in leisure time and disposable income, the modern Halloween experiment was ready to enter the scene. The long-standing American belief that each parent wants more for their children than what they had laid the final bricks to our parents wanting more fun, more smiles, and yes, more candy, than they had been able to experience.
Mister Boomer’s Halloween memories center around two main things: trick-or-treating and costumes. As the school year blended into October, the order of the day was kids asking each other, “What are you gonna be?” The answer was usually, “I don’t know yet” as the temperatures started to drop and darkness approached earlier each night. Store-bought costumes, around since the 20s, were not the first choice of Mister B’s neighborhood. Store costumes were rather cheap and uncomfortable, consisting of a pajama-like body suit of whatever the costume subject was to be, and a brittle plastic, frontal mask that sported eye and nose holes and an elastic band to fit around the head. Young parents might purchase a costume for their toddlers, but they usually held on to them and after the first child wore it for a few years, it was passed on to the next toddler.
Once we arrived at our own Age of Halloween Reason, somewhere around age seven — when we could trick-or-treat with older siblings and neighborhood peers instead of parents — we wanted to make our own costumes. Rarely getting very complex, our costumes relied on what was available in the suburban boomer’s household. First was clothing that was either our own or from another family member, and second, rags — the discards of our family unit. Rags were a renewable resource because polyester fabrics had yet to take over the store racks, so eventually, after a few patches extended the life of the garments, our natural fiber clothes and bed linens wore out and were relegated to the rag bin. In Mister Boomer’s house, rags were kept in an old potato chip tin in the basement. Rags played an important part in every suburban house because they served utilitarian purposes; they were used to wash windows, walls, floors and cars, for dusting and cleaning just about everything. In fact, in Mister B’s house, paper towels weren’t purchased until his mom went back to work in the late sixties. When Halloween came around, we could raid the rag bin for inspiration and in some cases, our entire costume.
Since we were mainly on our own, costumes fell into just a few categories. Girls could be cowgirls, princesses, ballerinas, gypsies, ghosts, the occasional angels or, as a harbinger of egalitarian opportunity, hobos. Boys were hobos, too, and pirates, clowns, cowboys or military men as we donned our father’s discards. The default costumes that would do in a pinch were mummies or ghosts. In the case of the former, all that was needed was a rag sheet. Years before colors entered the world of bed linens, cotton sheets were always white. Torn into strips, mummy bandages were ready to be wrapped at the last minute around our cold-weather outfits. The ghost costume was a final resort, as all it entailed was making two eye holes in a sheet draped over your head.
The homemade hobo costume was particularly interesting from a cultural sense for two reasons. First, as mentioned, it could be gender-neutral on occasion. Since it was Halloween, a girl could be whatever she wanted to be — within reason. Secondly, no hobo outfit was complete without a little charcoal beard to accompany the prop of a bandana stuffed with belongings tied to a stick. Our mothers would take corks and blacken the ends in the flame from the stovetop. They would then rub the blackened cork on our faces to simulate beards or dirt. The same technique was used for rounding out a pirate look. Today, there aren’t many corks left in the marketplace to show your grandkids this all-too-common makeup application from our day.
For proper trick-or-treating, an appropriate vessel was required to collect the sweets. Toddlers had plastic pumpkins, but youngsters wanted more — much more — than those simple pails could hold. We used pillow cases, and our goal was to fill them. Naturally, it was an impossible task given the hours and quantity of subdivision houses available. There once was a neighborhood boy who claimed he did fill one, running like a madman from house to house for hours, hitting the houses where they gave out chocolate bars more than once. Though the neighborhood kids doubted the veracity of his story, Mister B was witness to a pillow case filled up to the overlapped fabric stitching — close enough!
Then there were the treats. Mister B liked anything chocolate, and anything that gave you more than one piece. Candy bars, Smarties, Turkish Taffy, Squirrels, Chuckles, Lifesavers, malted milk balls and root beer barrels were among his favorites. He was not at all fond of suckers like Dum-Dums, though an occasional Tootsie Pop was OK. Kids dreaded the households that gave out popcorn balls, apples or pennies. Though these people put in more thought and effort than simply opening a bag of candy, their efforts were not appreciated.
Arriving home with at least a half of a pillow case of goodies, Mister Boomer’s mother laid claim to the Milk Duds, Mary Janes, SweetTarts and Milky Way bars, which she would freeze. Mister B’s dad was partial to Butterfingers, Mounds bars and Junior Mints. Naturally, this meant Mister Boomer and his siblings had to hide a reserve of any of these items to keep them from the claws of the parental units.
As boomers aged, costumed parties were more the norm, or they could man the door and give out candy. It was common to take the screen top out of the front door so as to reach out and drop whatever the household had into the kids’ bags. Besides, the weather change demanded that the storm windows would be put in soon, anyway. One year, Mister B’s parents gave out the dreaded Dum-Dum suckers. Mister B conspired with his brother to try an experiment to see if they could retrieve a sucker dropped into a bag. Tying a string around a sucker’s stick, the trap was set. When an older kid — near the age when the activity was probably his last year — approached with a paper shopping bag, Mister B dropped two suckers in. He was destined to keep one, but the other had a string attached. As the boy stepped off the porch and down the walk, Mister B tugged on the string, causing the sucker to fling out of his bag and onto the sidewalk. Before the next group of kids approached, he quickly reeled it in to set the trap again. Laughing hysterically, Mister B’s brother observed the process a couple more times. Then he wanted to give it a try. This time, the string broke and the amusing game was discovered by Mister B’s mom. It remained a fun Halloween memory anyway.
Today, Halloween is a nearly $6 billion industry that exists in no small part thanks to boomer parents and their children who now decorate their houses with displays that rival Christmas. Adult parties with all the trimmings, from scary foods and treats to music, movies and decorations are extremely popular with boomers and their offspring. And it looks like there is no turning back. Take a minute, though, boomers, and think about how we had such fun with a few simple ingredients: rags, imaginations and friends.
What is your favorite Halloween memory from your youth?