How Gangsters and the Media Helped Make Trick or Treating a Halloween Tradition

Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

On Halloween night in 1934, a scene played out in Helena, Montana, that the local newspaper, the Helena Independent, related as though it were a scene out of a mafia confrontation [PDF]. A group of teenagers roughly 15 to 16 years old knocked on a woman’s door and asserted they were there for the purposes of trick or treating. When the woman refused their request, they opted for a third outcome—property damage. The kids smashed her birdbath.

The paper identified the group’s “leader” as “Pretty Boy” John Doe, a nod to Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a notorious gangster who had been killed in a police shootout just two weeks before. In media and in the minds of kids, the then-novel practice of trick or treating on Halloween was not quite innocent fun. It was emblematic of the public’s infatuation with civil disobedience and organized crime, and it would take no lesser positive influences than Donald Duck and Charlie Brown to make adults believe Halloween wasn’t merely a training ground for America’s youth to become hoodlums.

 

Trick or treating is a relatively new phenomenon in North America. The concept of going door to door and requesting candy on Halloween was virtually unheard-of prior to the 1920s, though it did have antecedents in ancient history. In the Middle Ages, following the Catholic Church’s re-appropriation of Celtic celebrations, kids would dress as saints, angels, and demons in what was known as “guising,” from “disguising.” These cloaked figures would go from one door to the next, requesting food or money in exchange for singing their benefactors a song or praying. This solicitation was known as “souling,” and children and poor adults who engaged in it were known as “soulers.”

Scottish and Irish immigrants likely brought guising over to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Around the same time, kids were in the habit of dressing up for other holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, and requesting money. When costumed events for Halloween became more prevalent and citywide celebrations were organized to help discourage kids from playing pranks, private groups began planning door-to-door visits in the 1920s. That’s when the disparate elements of costumes, mild pranks like ringing a doorbell and then running off, and getting treats all converged, seemingly taking a more sinister turn.

Early trick or treating was serious business.Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Writing in the American Journal of Play in 2011 [PDF], author Samira Kawash took a closer look at the rise in popularity of trick or treating and the seeming glorification of organized crime figures during the economically turbulent period of the 1930s. It’s little coincidence, Kawash wrote, that kids began to approach trick or treating as a form of extortion just as antiheroes achieved infamy in newspapers. The media reflected this influence, often writing of pranks in breathless terms. The threat of soaping windows if targets didn’t pay up in the form of treats was nothing more than a juvenile version of a mobster offering “protection” to a shopkeeper. Demands for candy could be considered a “shakedown.” The treats were “edible plunder.” Roving groups of costumed kids were “goon squads.” Some kids even bypassed requests for candy and demanded money instead.

In some parts of the country, the idea of making a choice between handing out food or suffering from a “trick” was new. In Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1938, a group of young boys told local police chief Paul Acton about their success. “We knock on the door,” one said, “and ask if they’d rather give us a treat, or have us dump over the garbage pail. Boy, have we been eating!”

The media took a critical approach to this new Halloween tradition, warning readers that such activities could be creating the criminals of tomorrow. Not everyone responded kindly to it, either. In Brooklyn, a school principal responded to a trick or treat offer by slapping a child across the face after he was admonished by a tyke to “hand it over or else.” Trick or treating had morphed from a pitiable request for charity to a sneering threat of property destruction in lieu of a candy bar.

 

Trick or treating began to lose some of its edge during World War II, when sugar rationing disrupted the entire concept of Halloween and vandalizing homes seemed especially cruel considering the global threat to democracy. In Reno, Nevada, in 1942, a school superintendent named E.O. Vaughn told principals and teachers to caution kids against knocking on doors, both because of the war and because it had a “tinge of gangsterism.” By the time candy had resumed normal production and the nation was no longer mired in war or a financial crisis, it had settled into something mostly innocent. (But not totally without mischief. In 1948, local police in Dunkirk, New York, advised adults to phone them when a group of kids was spotted so cops could “round up the children.”)

By the 1950s, trick or treating was less about property damage and more about having fun with friends.Joe Clark, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Helping restore the reputation of trick or treating were two familiar icons in popular culture. In 1951, Charles Schulz drew a series of Peanuts comic strips that featured Charlie Brown and his friends going door to door. (Peppermint Patty uses Charlie Brown’s head as inspiration for her pumpkin carving.) The strip, read by millions of people daily, normalized the practice. So did Trick or Treat, a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon that was released theatrically and featured Donald caught in a battle of tricks with nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

Further legitimizing the practice of demanding treats was the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or UNICEF, which provided boxes for kids to collect their sugary bounty as well as request spare change. The effort eventually raised $175 million and returned trick or treating to its more charitable origins.

Although Halloween has settled into a widely understood arrangement in which candy is distributed without any overt threat of birdbath-bashing, not everyone has abandoned the brute force aspects of the 1930s. According to data compiled by GateHouse Media and taken from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, there were 19,900 acts of vandalism on October 31 over a 10-year period from 2009 to 2018. Only New Year’s Day was more eventful, with 21,000 acts committed in the same timeframe. For many, Halloween is a time to collect treats. For others, it remains the season for tricks.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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5 World War I-Era Tips for Celebrating Thanksgiving in Strange Times

Thanksgiving Day menu from November 1917 at Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Thanksgiving Day menu from November 1917 at Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
National World War I Museum and Memorial

The year 2020 has been one of hardships, sacrifices, and reimagined traditions. As the United States enters the holiday season with COVID-19 cases at a record high, this reality is more undeniable than ever.

Thanksgiving may look different for many people this year, but it won’t be totally unprecedented. Whether you’re connecting with people remotely, entertaining a smaller group, or trying out a new menu, you can find guidance in the records of Thanksgivings past.

As a 1918 newspaper article from the National World War I Museum and Memorial’s archives reads, “The thanks of the Yanks may differ this year from that of peace-time Novembers, but [...] the spirit of the day is always the same, however much the surroundings may differ."

Americans celebrating Thanksgiving at home and abroad during World War I had to deal with food shortages, being away from family, and, in 1918, a global pandemic. Mental Floss spoke with Lora Vogt, the World War I Museum’s curator of education, about what people making the best of this year’s holiday can learn form wartime Thanksgiving celebrations.

1. Mail Treats to Loved Ones.

Thanksgiving postcard from 1918.National World War I Museum and Memorial

Even when separated by great distances, families found ways to share food on Thanksgiving a century ago. “We have all of these letters from service members saying thanks for the candy, thanks for the cakes, thank you for the donuts—all of these foods they were sent from their loved ones when they couldn't be together,” Vogt tells Mental Floss.

If you're spending Thanksgiving apart from the people you love this year, sending them a treat in the mail can be a great way to connect from a distance. Just remember that not everything people mailed to each other during World War I belongs in a modern care package. “I would suggest you forgo the live chickens,” Vogt says. “The USPS has been through so much this year already.”

2. Try a New Recipe.

Food shortages made ingredients like sugar, wheat, and red meat hard to come by during World War I. In 1918, the U.S. government released a cookbook titled Win the War in the Kitchen, which featured ration-friendly recipes. Americans aren’t dealing with the same food shortages they saw during World War I (or even March 2020) this Thanksgiving, but an unconventional celebration could be the perfect excuse to recreate a dish from history. Some recipes from Win the War in the Kitchen that could fit into your Thanksgiving menu include corn fritters, lentil casserole, carrot pudding, Puritan turkey stuffing, and maple syrup cake with maple syrup frosting. You can find the full digitized version of the book at the National World War I Museum’s online exhibit.

3. Depart From Tradition.

This year is the perfect opportunity to break the rules on Thanksgiving. That means instead of sitting down to a stuffy dinner at a set time, you could enjoy a relaxed day of eating, drinking, and binge-watching. This excerpt from a 1918 letter written by serviceman James C. Ryan to his mother may provide some inspiration:

"Had Thanksgiven [sic] dinner at Huber's over in Newark. Collins was in Cleveland on a furlough and Huber and his wife was alone with me [...] Started off with a little champagne and I certainly did put away an awfull [sic] feed. Had several cold bottles during the day and after coming back from a movie we had a few and some turkey sandwiches."

“Starting off with a little champagne does not sound like a bad plan,” Vogt tells Mental Floss. “And it was very much a small pod. They have their variation of Netflix, and then turkey sandwiches at the end of the day. Certainly some similarities and some inspiration there.”

Thanksgiving festivities were also unconventional for soldiers serving overseas in World War I. While stationed "somewhere in France" on November 29, 1918, Hebert Naylor wrote to his mother describing a Thanksgiving with two big meals—and not a turkey in sight:

“We came back and had breakfast at 10 o’clock. It consisted of pancakes, syrup, bacon and coffee. We had the big dinner at 4:30 PM and I tell you it was quite a dinner to be served to so many men. It consisted of baked chicken, creamed corn, french fried potatoes, lettuce, pie, cake and coffee. This was the first pie and cake I had since I left home and believe me it tasted good.”

4. Find Normalcy Where You Can.

Thanksgiving 1918 for the 79th Aero Squadron at Taliaferro Field, Hicks, Texas.National World War I Museum and Memorial

No matter what your Thanksgiving looks like in 2020, making room for a couple of traditions can provide much-needed comfort in a year of uncertainty. Even people celebrating during wartime 100 years ago were able to incorporate some normalcy into their festivities. On November 29, 1917, serviceman Thomas Shook wrote about seeing a football game while at army training camp: “In the afternoon several of us went to the Army vs. Ill. U. football game. There sure was some crowd. Army lost the game first they have lost.”

Keeping some classic items on the menu is another way make the day feel more traditional. Army trainee Charles Stevenson wrote to his grandmother on Thanksgiving 1917: “We had about the best dinner I ever ate today—turkey, cranberry sauce and cranberries, fruit salad, mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, tea and mine [sic] pie. Pretty fine eating for the soldier bosy [sic].”

5. Share What You’re Thankful For.

During the Great War’s darkest moments, some service members were still inspired to express gratitude when Thanksgiving rolled around. Thomas Shook wrote in a letter to his parents dated November 28, 1918 that after surviving the war, he had now escaped the Spanish Flu that was infecting many of the men he served with. Despite the hardships he endured, he was thankful to have been spared by the virus and be on his way home.

Wherever you are this Thanksgiving, sharing what you’re grateful for with loved ones—even if it’s by phone, Zoom, or a handwritten letter—is a simple way to celebrate the holiday.