Personal Finance

How Halloween Became Candy's Unofficial Holiday

Here's why we're spending $2.7 billion a year on satisfying our spooky sweet tooth.

Halloween may traditionally celebrate ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other fictional creatures that go bump in the night, but the only people who should feel truly terrified are dentists… and, of course, parents. That's because Americans eat a frightful amount of candy during Halloween season, purchasing an estimated 600 million pounds of sweets on average, making the holiday a celebration for candy manufacturers. According to a 2017 report from the National Retail Federation, the country spent $2.7 billion last year to indulge its collective sweet tooth, $200 million more than what was spent the year prior in 2016.

So how did our insatiable hunger for Reese's, Snickers and yes, even candy corn, in October become a cultural phenomenon?

How Halloween was celebrated before binging on candy

Halloween in America wasn't always associated with the crinkle of candy wrappers and the moans of children who stuffed themselves with too many fun-sized candy bars. In the U.S., the holiday didn't take off until the late 19th century when popular periodicals—the mass media of its day—began depicting the upper crust in England celebrating with parties and decorations. "You start to see Halloween show up as this quaint holiday that had rural roots, and the Victorians loved this idea of going back to nature," said Lesley Bannatyne, author and scholar of American holidays and folklore. "They also had this fascination with death, which made Halloween an attractive party idea." That morbid fascination was coupled with towns and cities that began to place emphasis on recognizing common holidays—such as Halloween—as a way to help immigrants coming to America culturally assimilate as new residents. Halloween as we know and love it today began to slowly take shape.

According to Bannatyne, Halloween activities throughout the early 20th century ran the gamut from costumed, Mardi Gras-style parades to unofficial but incessant pranks. "A huge part of Halloween was all about pranking, such as removing fences and greasing trolley tracks—things we would consider (dangerous) today," Bannatyne said. "People just accepted it until the Great Depression, when letting the air out of someone's tires was now seen as vandalism." Early versions of trick-or-treating organically sprang up in communities across the country to help distract young people from wrecking modes of public transportation or making similar mischief.

Changing tastes reflect a changing country

The trick-or-treaters of the 1930s running from home to home expected a different haul than today's participants. Nonedible items, such as pennies, shared space with apples and home-baked goods in the typical trick-or-treater's bag, along with candy more recognizable to present-day trick-or-treaters, such as Hershey's and Baby Ruth candy bars. The latter's mix of ingredients and flavors made it an example of what was at the time a new innovation for mass-produced candy. "During the Depression, the candy companies realized if they packed a candy bar with peanuts, sugar, and layer on things like caramel, they could sell it as a meal replacement," said Beth Kimmerle, an author on the history of candy and a food industry consultant.

After the country emerged from World War II as an industrial and economic superpower, the nation's newfound exuberance for packaged, mass-produced goods—then seen as totems of a modern lifestyle—translated into the candy world as more portable and varied sweets. "Grandmothers maybe still made fudge or caramel in their own kitchen, but an M&M?" Kimmerle said. "That's factory-made food that was exciting and cool, because you could never make an M&M at home." The postwar decades saw the popularization of miniaturized versions of legacy candies, such as Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and the introduction of new, vibrant candies such as Starburst (in 1960) and Skittles (1979).

By the 1990s, Americans began favoring nontraditional flavors in their candy, with mouth-puckering treats such as Sour Patch Kids and Shock Tarts reaching wild popularity. "That's where the exploration into wild flavors starts to begin," Kimmerle said. "Now it's not only sour flavors and chocolate and vanilla. The sky's the limit, and there's candy with Sriracha flavor and jellybeans with vomit flavor … I look at it now and think 'Wow, we're in a totally different world.'"

It's a world characterized not just by the flavor of candy, but the ingredients. "There's a huge and growing market for what we call 'clean-label' versions of conventional items," Kimmerle said, referring to candies such as gummies that are made with less artificial ingredients. "They might be organic, or use less corn syrup, and that's huge with moms these days."

James Ellis

James Ellis is a Staff Writer for ValuePenguin, covering credit, banking, travel and other personal finance topics. He previously wrote for Newsweek, Men's Health, and other nationally-published magazines.