Boomers Make Halloween A Real Boom-Time Event

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?

Home Delivery

As the Age of Convenience began to unfold after the war, the suburbs, fast filling with boomer families, would now enjoy the added convenience of home delivery. In the 1950s and 60s, a variety of products were delivered directly to boomer homes on a regular basis. Among these were merchandise, goods and services that ran from milk to cloth diapers; tins of potato chips to cases of soda pop; knife sharpening to doctor visits.

Milk had been delivered to homes for decades in Europe and the U.S. before it reached suburbia. As the burbs grew, so did the need for the fresh product. After all, milk was a daily part of our beverage consumption, starting with milk for breakfast cereal, on to a mid-morning milk break at school, followed by milk at lunch time, then a glass of milk for dinner, more often than not. Keeping enough milk on hand for a growing family each week meant several trips to the local market.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Mister Boomer recalls getting Sealtest milk delivered to his home. The milkman would leave two to four glass quart bottles of fresh milk by the front door twice a week. The bottles were beautiful; functional forms made of straight sides and a heavily-lipped rounded top. The stopper was a waxed cardboard that held a little tab in the center to use for pulling it open.

We always received a mix of chocolate and white, since Mister B was not a fan of the plain variety. Mister B recalls when his father would tell him of the milk deliveries of his youth. In the winter, the milk would freeze, pushing the stopper out and the frozen cream to the top. He would break off some of the cream and eat it like a popsicle. In these times, though, the milk never sat long enough outside to become heated or frozen, depending on the season. A few years later, the dairy gave each house on the route an insulated aluminum box, which held permanent residence on our front porch. This extended the time you could leave the milk outside before bringing it into the house for refrigeration. The box could hold up to four quart bottles, plus the occasional cottage cheese Mister B’s mother would add to the order. No one in the family enjoyed the cottage cheese as much as Mister B’s mother. She would add canned peaches or fruit cocktail to it and sometimes placed it on an iceberg lettuce leaf. Cottage cheese was all the rage, and was considered a great lo-cal diet dish at the time, even with the addition of the heavy-syrup canned fruit. Along with the milk and products was a hand-written invoice of the day’s tally. Once a month or so, we’d leave an envelope containing the total — in cash — in the box along with the empties.

The milkman arrived early to ensure that fresh milk was available for breakfast. During the summer months, when we’d be up and out of the house by 7:00 a.m., the neighborhood kids gathered and waited for the milk truck to turn down the block. When the milkman stepped out of his truck, two kids would step in the open passenger door and crawl above the two cooling cabinets on either side of the truck back. On one side ice cream and frozen treats were kept, while the other housed milk and cottage cheese. The milkman also carried eggs. The entire walls and ceiling were covered with aluminum, insulating the inside of the truck. Ice was kept in the coolers, so it always felt cool inside. We’d lay in the 24 inches of space left between the insulated cooler cabinets and the truck roof, always facing forward, absorbing the coolness of the truck as the summer day began heating up. Our driver would return and, acting oblivious to our presence, would surge the truck forward two houses at a time for the next deliveries. We’d stay in the truck above the wall cabinets until he reached near the top of the block. At that point we’d drop down from our perches and bid farewell to our ride. One day a neighbor told Mister Boomer that the milkman knew we were there all along. It did make perfect sense to Mister B. We didn’t try to conceal ourselves, and he often had to reach into the back of the truck to place the glass empties into the wooden crates on the floor and retrieve more fresh products. Yet he rarely spoke to us or acknowledged our presence. It didn’t matter; to us it was an adventure.

Early on, diaper service trucks from a couple of different companies would visit the block. In an age when women were required to hand wash and bleach baby diapers, a service was a godsend. Disposable diapers were yet to be introduced. Mister Boomer recalls at an early age, the ammonia smell of the diaper pail that held the diaper discharges of his baby sister. Mister B’s mother would surely have appreciated being relieved of the drudgery of having to clean the toxic cloths.

Once a month, the knife sharpening truck would pay the block a visit. The driver would bring his truck to a slow crawl and ring his bell: one clang followed by a period of silence, then repeat it, until front doors swung open and housewives or their children came to the street bearing knives and scissors, being careful not to run with them. The man would stop his truck. In the back, large windows were cut to open up the entire truck on both sides. He’d start up the grinder on his bench and go to work. We’d watch the sparks fly as he honed each blade until the sharpness returned and each order fulfilled. One time, Mister B’s father had removed the blade from the lawn mower and asked that we get it sharpened when the man arrived. The side of his truck listed lawn mower blades along with scissors and knives, so we brought the heavy blade to him. A few careful strokes on the grinder, then some hand work with a file finished the job, revealing shiny, sharp metal where there was dullness before.

Doctors regularly made house calls when patients were too sick to travel to the office. Carrying their little black leather bags and always dressed in a suit and tie, the authoritative silhouette of the doctor was always recognizable as he made his way up the walkways to the neighborhood’s front doors. While a rarity in the Mister Boomer household, the family doc did pay the house a few visits. The glass thermometer for temperature taking was often followed by the dreaded penicillin shot. That would spell out a vulnerability to siblings, like Mister B’s brother, who could then target the “shot arm.”

Today, direct home delivery of products is still experienced in some parts of the country, though seriously diminished from our boomer youth days. Some enterprising food businesses have cropped up to sell groceries online that are delivered to your door. There are also complete meals available for delivery. For the most part, the home delivery business has been transformed. Now, it’s not unusual for the children or grandchildren of boomers to order almost anything online and have it delivered to their doors. Nowadays, if the person coming to the door is wearing a uniform, though, it’ll most likely be UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service.

What’s your best home delivery memory, boomers?