Boomers Loved Their Chocolate Easter Bunnies

As spring ushers in another Easter in the Boomer Era, Mister Boomer is waxing nostalgic for the Easters of yore. In particular, he recalls that marshmallow peeps were OK and jelly beans were good (except for those light blue ones … what flavor was that supposed to be?), but the main candy event every Easter was the chocolate bunny.

Chocolate bunnies didn’t originate in the boomer years. In fact, people have been consuming milk chocolate Easter bunnies as far back as the 1890s, when the tradition was brought to the U.S. by German immigrants. The hollow chocolate bunny made its debut in the 1930s. As World War II rationing took hold in 1942, consumer chocolate production was halted and cacao was diverted to the War effort. Thus the chain of munching chocolate Easter bunnies that was gaining momentum with each passing year was broken.

After the War, a soldier returning home was searching for a business idea. In 1948, Richard Palmer, that former soldier, decided he’d open a candy business. To keep himself out of direct competition with Hershey’s, and to avoid confusion with the E.C. Palmer Candy Company, he defined his business model as seasonal and novelties, beginning with Easter. Among his first confections were hollow chocolate bunny “personalities” that were more like cartoon characters than the traditional standing or seated chocolate bunnies sold up to that point. He applied for and was awarded patents for his chocolate bunny molds.

This differentiation was a hit with new parents and their boomer kids from the start. Richard Palmer was in the right place at the right time, and as a result he is credited with reintroducing the chocolate Easter bunny to a whole new generation. Today, the R.M. Palmer Company is the largest maker of chocolate Easter bunnies in the U.S. as more than 90 million per year are produced. The company expanded to Christmas candies in the early 1960s as boomer families grew, and added year-round novelties in the past three decades.

Easter advertising imagery 1961
The two most important things for an early boomer Easter was chocolate bunnies and church. This montage of advertising imagery from 1961 ilustrates that, with a family dressed for church, Easter basket and chocolate bunny looming large in the minds of the boomer youth. Images taken from Mister B's collection.

As a general rule, consuming candy was not an everyday occurrence for most boomers. Rather, it was a measured treat reserved for holidays and special occasions. Mister B remembers his family’s candy traditions at Easter. Wicker Easter baskets had been purchased for each of the three children at an early age and were reused year to year. First, Easter grass would line the bottom. Next, a layer of jelly beans would be tossed into the grass, like sugary drops of dew on a spring lawn. A few foil-wrapped chocolate eggs followed. Occasionally, a snap-together plastic egg was placed into the basket, filled with more jelly beans and small chocolate eggs. Two yellow marshmallow peeps were next, set to the sides of the basket to frame the star of the show: the chocolate Easter bunny. Varying in size and shape each year, the bunnies came packed in rectangular cardboard boxes printed with colorful Easter colors, with a good portion of the front panel being made of cellophane to afford a grand view of the chocolate prize inside. The box was nestled into the center of the basket, an edible rabbit in a grass nest.

Come Easter morning, Mister Boomer’s family would search for Easter eggs the family had dyed the day before, but not Easter baskets. His parents preferred to just give Mister B and his siblings the Easter treats without any wrapping or fanfare. Since the children received the same basket each year, there was never a question of which belonged to whom. Brother Boomer, ever into instant gratification, would tear into his bunny box and with a single hand, grab the chocolate bunny by the throat and yanked it from its cardboard mooring. A second later, he had bitten a chunk off the ears. It appears Brother Boomer wasn’t the only person who chose to chomp his bunny ears first. In fact, today it is reported that 76% of people prefer to eat the ears first. As for Mister B, he preferred to savor the experience bit by bit. He may have allowed himself a nibble of ear at a time, but wouldn’t take the entire chocolate auditory system in a single act of carnage.

Like Halloween candy, the candy in an Easter basket was intended to last for while. Being home from school for spring break gave us the perfect schedule for dispatching the contents. Naturally, a watchful eye was always judicious when Brother Boomer’s basket was empty, lest he raid the remaining two baskets to satisfy his first-born cravings.

What memories of chocolate Easter bunnies are dancing through your heads today, boomers?

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?