It Was a Happy Halloween for Boomers

Now that another Halloween has come and gone, the differences between the trick or treating we did as boomer youngsters and the practices of today’s youth came into striking contrast for Mister Boomer this week.

Halloween for boomers was a fairly straightforward, simplistic affair. The very young were escorted door to door on Halloween night by one or both parents, while teens might either go to house parties or become the designated family candy distributors. The unwritten rule was, by the age of 13 or 14, your door to door trick or treating days were over. There were exceptions, as there are to every rule, but that is the way it usually transpired. There were the occasional adult costume parties on weekends before or after Halloween and some community costume contests, but not to the extent we see today.

Expenditures for Halloween have been growing exponentially in the U.S. The National Retail Federation reports that Americans spent nearly $7 billion on costumes for adults, children and pets, outdoor decorations, candy, indoor decorations and party supplies. Recent TV reports have indicated that the expansion of Halloween into what we celebrate today has been exported to other countries. Most notably, England now celebrates “American Halloween” in much the same way we do, with a special emphasis on costumes for adults.

Mister B has seen differences in four areas in a comparison of Halloween then and now, mainly, in house decorations, the times trick or treating takes place, costumes worn by kids and with the candy that is handed out.

The “holiday,” once a one-day, even one-evening event (two if you count Devil’s Night), now has been extended to a week or in many suburban locations, a month. People decorate their homes with multiple jack-o-lanterns that may be custom-carved, orange LED lights, cobwebs, animatronic figures, graveyard headstones, flying witches, accompanying spooky sounds and more. The vast majority of these items are store bought.

In our day if a home was decorated, chances are it was with homemade items. Kids’ art projects made of construction paper were often displayed on doors and windows, and a carved pumpkin — most often of the standard triangle eyes and nose, with the alternating toothy evil smile — sat in a window or on a porch. You wouldn’t see any decorations at all until at least the weekend before Halloween. Some people made frightening-looking scarecrows to sit in a chair on their porch, while others dressed up to look like a dummy, only to spring to life to scare a group of trick or treaters that approached. Others hung dummies in a noose from trees on their property or suspended witch dummies from branches. All in all, decorated homes were few and far between. By the next day, any outside decorations were gone.

Trick or treating times have changed. Now the very young — still accompanied by a parent — have finished their trick or treating before dark. Many families take their young ones to business districts (even driving there) to get treats from business owners in addition to neighborhood trick or treating. Pre-teens seem to start trick or treating the instant they get home from school. Costumes are often worn to school, so there is no lag time requiring a change when they arrive home, unless they have two costumes, which is a possibility. In Mister B’s current neighborhood, trick or treating is pretty much over by seven o’clock. Other areas may go on an hour or so longer.

In boomer times trick or treating didn’t start until after the family dinner time. In Mister Boomer’s area, that meant 6:00 or 6:30, at which point it was already dark. Mister B and his siblings quickly shoveled the food from their plates so they could get out. The time between arriving home after school and dinner time was spent on homework (if a teacher was unkind enough to assign some, which was not very often) or making final tweaks to a costume. The doorbell might ring a couple of times during dinner as early trick or treating began, but usually six o’clock marked the beginning. There were a lot of boomers out there of varying ages, so for most houses, a teen could stay home with one parent to pass out candy while a parent walked a younger one around. By the age of 7 or 8, we were walking around with other neighboring children or older siblings. Around eight o’clock, the crowds waned, with hardly a soul on the street by nine, except some teens and those bent on mischief.

While homemade costumes still exist, store-bought costumes by far outweigh the number of homemades. TV, movie and comic characters are popular, with zombies and vampires the current rage. Costumes are usually a head-to-toe proposition, with elaborate masks that can cover the entire head, or masks replaced by fancy makeup.

Store bought costumes existed in early boomer days, but they were rudimentary at best. Masks often consisted of a brittle, thin plastic faceplate with eyeholes that was held on the head by essentially a rubber band. Body pieces were often clunky one- or two-piece suits of thin, dark fabric, with whatever the costume theme was stenciled on the front, usually in white. So a skeleton costume could consist of a skull mask with bones silk-screened on the front of the suit. Perhaps that is why we made most of our costumes. It was also a fun activity that added to the excitement of the holiday.

Since most costumes were home made, they tended to fall into just a few categories. A white sheet (most sheets were plain white then) with eyeholes cut out could be an instant go-to costume. There were pirates and hobo costumes for boys, since both relied mainly on old clothes, while a sheet died black could serve as a Dracula cape with the addition of wax-candy fangs. Dyed red, it was a devil cape, with plastic horns worn on the head. There might be cowboys and Indians, or the occasional astronaut or fireman. Girls wanted to be princesses, ballet dancers or, with the right clothing available from their mothers, gypsies or witches, if mom made the hat.

To be sure, many of the brands we craved as boomer ghouls and goblins are still passed out today. Candy like Snickers, Baby Ruth, Payday, Chunky, Milky Way, Oh Henry, Butterfingers, Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Pops remain on the scene, though cheaper brands abound for their more-bang-for-the buck appeal to homeowners. Like boomer times, candy bars are the most sought after. Houses that passed out full-size bars were and probably remain the most prized.

Mister B recalls several other types of candy that are either rarely seen now, or have vanished. Zagnuts and Clark bars are fewer, as are Mary Janes and Smarties, though they all still exist. Mister B hasn’t seen Squirrels in years, nor Dum Dum suckers, though generic suckers are everywhere. It seems people no longer want to give out gum like Bazooka Bubble Gum, Chiclets, Juicyfruit or Fruit Stripe. Sugar Daddy, Kits, Charleston Chews, Bun, Bit-O-Honey, root beer barrels and a host of others appear to be gone, available only on nostalgia Web sites.

Mister B remembers the three items he didn’t want to see dropped into his bag: apples, pennies and popcorn balls. He could get apples anytime, and much preferred candy. Pennies could purchase candy, so why not just give out candy? And popcorn balls didn’t seem all that tasty to Mister B. They were usually homemade, and probably a quite inexpensive way to provide treats for the givers. Popcorn dipped in corn syrup, wrapped in (usually) red cellophane was all there was to it.

Yes, Halloween has changed in the past 50 years. Hopefully today’s kids will have the great memories boomers have of running house to house, their goal of filling a pillow case with treats an annual goal, if not an impossible feat.

Do you have a favorite Halloween memory — or candy — boomers?

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?