Trick or Treat

Does it seem to you like Halloween has made a comeback?

Kids used to trick or treat in droves. Huge crowds of ’em, all in costume, getting candy and making trouble. I used to be one of them, but even now, I’m reluctant to go into much detail on the trouble part of the evening.

Then came the bad old days, with evil people doing evil things to candy…and to the kids who came trick or treating. Halloween seemed to ebb for a decade or so, but then got its second wind as memories faded a bit, routines changed, and a new generation of goblins came along.

At least, that’s how it seems to me. I decided to check it out.

But first things first. How long have kids been knocking on doors, and yelling Trick or Treat? It’s definitely a habit that blossomed in the 1940’s and ’50s, but the very FirstMention harks all the way back to 1927. The November 4, 1927 issue of the Letherbridge Herald in Alberta, of all places, carried this recap of Halloween night festivities.

So “trick or treat” was the cry of the night way back on Halloween Eve in 1927, at least in Blackie, Alberta. But the phrase then disappears from print for quite a spell, not showing up again until 1938, and then pretty sparingly. After 1938, though, it becomes a pretty regular occurance in the newspapers of the day, becoming a downright national phenonemon sometime in the 1940s.

Interestingly (to me…I have a strong streak of geek), the earliest use of “trick or treat” really seems to be an out west sort of thing, more specifically, northwest, showing up in Northern California, Montana, Idaho, and way up north in Alberta. It’s not until later on that it begins to creep east and south.

I’m geeky in both a words and numbers sort of way, so I decided to count the appearance of “trick or treat” in newspapers over the years. They look like this.

You can see a dot for the one wee mention of the phrase in 1927, followed by a lot of nothing. But in the late 1930’s it begins to pick up again, climbs a bit through the ’40s and soars through the 1950s, ’60s and most of the 70s.

But then it sinks like a rock wearing cement shoes in the late 70s, and stays pretty flat for a spell, before making a mighty comeback — you might even say going a bit crazy — as it climbs through the 1990s and into the 21st century.

What happened? The nation got spooked, that’s what happened. This 1979 article from Marysville, Ohio gives a bit of the feel of how Halloween disappeared from a lot of communities for a while, only gradually making a reappearance.

It was a scary time. But looking at the graph above, candy makers everywhere can heave a big sigh of relief.

Know of an earlier FirstMention? Drop us a line at