A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since boomers donned costumes and ran door to door in pursuit of as much candy as they could possibly gather. It seemed a simpler time, yet whether kids made their own costumes or wore the manufactured masks and apron-like coverings that their parents bought, lurking beneath the costume practice was a fair measure of cultural insensitivity at best, bigotry at worst.
Costumes that did not on the surface seem objectionable then would not be acceptable now. The Boomer Generation appeared right after World War II, so boomer kids were not going to be wandering around the neighborhood dressed as Nazis, or in black face, either (at least in Mister B’s neck of the woods). Nonetheless, Japanese Geisha costumes, Mexican sombreros and mustaches, and most prevalent of all, “Indian” princess and hobo costumes, were fairly common.
Cartoons from the 1940s and earlier perpetuated cultural stereotypes, and boomers watched them on TV all the time. In movies and TV Westerns, Native Americans were portrayed as “the Indian problem,” and the villain. That is why, in Mister Boomer’s estimation, girls wore Native American costumes more than boys; the boys generally preferred to be the cowboy “good-guys.”
By the mid-1960s, though, hobo costumes were popular with both boys and girls, possibly because it was a fairly easy do-it-yourself project. Every house kept old clothes for rags, so ill-fitting, worn-out clothes were on hand. Old shoes and perhaps one of dad’s old hats were added to it. Grab a bandana or dishcloth to tie up “belongings” and slip the knot over a stick, and the costume — a direct interpretation from cartoons — was complete. In some case, moms would toast a cork over the stove flame and smudge it on the child’s cheeks to simulate dirt or a four-day beard.
The movies (like Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” vagrant) and cartoons, if anything, romanticized a life where men (almost exclusively) set campfires to warm cans of soup before hopping trains from town to town. In that stereotypical portrayal, the idea of a homeless person was lost.
Store-bought costumes held their own degree of cultural appropriation and insensitivity. Ben Cooper, Inc., was the largest manufacturer of kids’ costumes in the boomer years. The company was among the first to license cartoon and movie characters from their beginnings in the late 1930s. While the company, and others like Collegeville and Halco, produced TV character costumes that included Zorro, Donald Duck and Davy Crockett, they also made Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto, and “squaw” costumes for little girls.
This year there is a continuing discussion concerning Disney’s Moana and Pocahontas costumes for little girls. While the girls want to picture themselves as Disney princesses, others see cultural disrespect and insensitivity to a distorted historical record. In fact, in 2016 Disney removed a costume based on the character Maui, from the Moana movie, from store shelves. The objections raised said the costume promoted “brown-facing.”
Recent events have produced dozens of stories of people in prominent positions who had more than a few skeletons in their Halloween closet, and the pictures to prove it. However, despite the record of insensitivity in the boomer years, Mister Boomer can’t help but notice that in this latest rash of revelations, the named offenders were not children at the time they made their costume choices, and were not of the Boomer Generation, but later generations. These revelations prove that we still have a ways to go to live up to boomer-era sentiments of, “C’mon people now/smile on your brother/everybody get together/try to love one another right now.”
How about it, boomers? Did you wear costumes 50 years ago that wouldn’t pass scrutiny today? How would you feel about your grandchildren wearing these types of costumes today?
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?