Now here’s an interesting peek into the history of this ghoulish time of the year. We take it for granted that “Halloween” = kids dressing up in costumes and going trick or treating. But for kids back during the silent era, Halloween (or Hallowe’en, if you like old-timey spellings as much as I do) had far more emphasis on the “trick” than the “treat.”
Trick-or-treating, descended from the “guising” tradition from Scotland and Ireland, didn’t become common until the 1930s. Before that, kids would still dress in costumes, but usually for Hallowe’en parties. And…mischief making.
This mischief often involved harmless pranks like soaping shop windows or more annoying feats like toppling people’s outhouses or opening gates to let out farmers’ cows. But some “goblins” took advantage of the night to vandalize peoples’ property, sometimes causing serious damage. Local police officers knew to expect a flood of calls on Halloween night, as folks reported kids throwing rocks through store windows or tearing apart small sheds.
Around the mid-1920s, some theater owners decided to try and help stem the tide of vandalism that arose every October 30th or 31st. (Their theaters weren’t immune from getting egged, soaped up, or worse.) They began offering “Hallowe’en Pledge” cards, where children signed a promise to not damage property on Halloween. In return, they could bring the signed cards to the theater to get into a children’s film showing for free.
The first reference I found to this generous promotion is from a report published in Motion Picture News, December 12, 1925:
These pledge cards read: “To J. Arthur Grady, Chief of Police, Pueblo, Colorado: I hereby pledge my support in protecting our city on Hallowe’en. I will not move or damage any property in the city, and will use my influence toward keeping others from doing it.” It must’ve been a big success, because around 2,000 kids went to see Felix the Cat.
Here’s an “honor card” sent out by Sacramento theater owner W.M. Glackin in 1928, as shown in Exhibitor’s Herald and Moving Picture World under the headline, “Hand Palm to Glackin for This Big Idea To Make Next Halloween Sane!”:
Glackin’s idea was a big success–he proudly said afterwards: “It was the quietest Halloween Sacramento ever had. I was talking to the chief of police…and he told me that of all his years as an officer of the law, he had never seen so little trouble on Halloween. They didn’t have a single complaint come in.”
Photos he sent in captured the rousing success:
Here’s another example of a pledge made by theater owner C.L. Roser from Baraboo, Wisconsin:
Roser also reported that his special matinee cut down the amount of Halloween pranks considerably, to the gratitude of both locals and the harried police.
These pledge card campaigns coincided with other movements in the 1920s to help keep overly-energetic kids off the streets, such as churches and other organizations hosting Halloween parties and dances. By the late 1920s the tradition of “guising” was gaining popularity, although some folks considered it a kind of extortion at first. The phrase “trick or treat” was first recorded in 1927 in a Canadian newspaper (and you can see how the term once had a pretty literal meaning!). By the 1930s trick-or-treating finally became widespread.
The rise of trick-or-treating as the dominant Halloween kids’ activity probably would’ve happened no matter what (this writer wonders if the Great Depression was a factor, since treats would’ve been scarce for many kids back then). But it’s fun to know that some 1920s theater owners did do their part to encourage the idea of Halloween as “harmless spooky fun” rather than “a license to destroy.”