Ben Cooper costumes
My second favorite time of year is fast approaching. I get nearly as excited about Halloween now as I did when I was a kid.
Two years ago I visited my two young grandsons in Houston, Texas, for Halloween. I dressed up as a knight and had a blast with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle boys. Unlike the Pittsburgh area, where you often have to bundle up like Nanook from the North to endure trick-or-treating, temperatures were in the 70’s in Houston. Earlier in the day, a typical torrential downpour had left their street flooded up to the car bumpers, but by 6:00 that night, the rain had dissipated, the bayous had done their magic, and we were all good to go.
Since it was warm outside, their street was the scene of a big block party, where kids didn’t have to ring many doorbells; they just walked into yards, where home owners had chairs and tables set up so that they could pass out candy outdoors. Parents roamed around in clever costumes as well.
Last year the boys were dragons while Mommy was Daenerys Targaryen (aka “the Mother of Dragons”) from Game of Thrones.
My granddaughter Katie, on the other hand, trick-or-treated in San Jose last year as Pikachu, a Pokemon character. In 2014 and 2015, she dressed up as a princess. Ever since the movie Frozen in 2013, little girls have gone bananas for anything princess-related.
The top two Halloween costumes for this year should come as no surprise. According to Fortune and the National Retail Federation, kids’ top pick of 2017 is super heroes. The #2 spot belongs to princesses. The #3 through #10 spots are:
5. Star Wars Characters
6. Tie: Witch and DC Superhero other than Batman
7. Frozen Character (Anna, Elsa, Olaf)
8. Marvel Superhero other than Spiderman
Now let’s rewind all the way back to the 1950’s and 1960’s when we boomers were kids. What wonderful Halloween memories! I can’t speak for every region of the country, but in our neck of the woods, the fun didn’t start on Halloween night. It started the night before with what we called “Devil’s Night.”
Devil’s Night was the “trick” part of “trick-or-treat.” In our neighborhood, I believe that it was only boys who participated. At least, I never did. Devilish pranks ruled the night: Soaping windows, shooting dried peas through a pea shooter at windows, ringing door bells and running off.
My brother adds, “Soaping windows really pissed off the unlucky victims since the soap had to be scrubbed off.”
Then there were the spools. The boys would take their mothers’ large wooden spools with thread removed, cut notches with pocket knives onto the tops and bottoms, and wind heavy string around them. In the dark of night, they would sneak up to a house, place the spool against a window, and pull the string. You wouldn’t believe the loud and annoying noise that it produced!
The neighbors expected and accepted the mischief every year as long as it was harmless. But one of my brother’s friends went a bit too far one year. For that reason, I’m going to change the names to protect the guilty. As my brother recalls, “One year JR rolled out Mr. Bortz’s hose and slid it quietly inside his unlocked screen door and turned on the water. Another year he took a bag of dog poop and lit it on fire on his porch and rang the bell. Mr. Bortz was wise to that trick and just kicked it off of the porch. For some reason, JR loved to mess with Mr. Bortz.”
Hey, at least they didn’t knock over outhouses like my dad’s generation did.
I didn’t find any lists of the top ten Halloween costumes of the 1950’s or 1960’s, but I do remember some popular ones. According to Wikipedia, before television graced the homes of middle class America, the most preferred costumes were traditional Halloween figures such as devils, ghosts, skeletons, and witches.
Once televisions became commonplace, TV characters such as Davy Crockett, Superman, and Zorro were in demand. There were plenty of cowboys, cowgirls, and pirates, too. In my neighborhood, most older boys dressed as “bums,” borrowing old clothes, sometimes adding some rips and holes, and topping them off with a grotesque mask and maybe an old hat.
Chances are that back in the 50’s and 60’s, you wore a costume manufactured by Ben Cooper, an icon in the Halloween costume industry. The masks were made of an inexpensive hard plastic, and the bodies were thin vinyl smocks. These should look familiar to boomers:
Since there were five kids in my family, and we were far from wealthy, my parents did not buy new costumes every year. So we recycled them. But they were quality ones, including some that my Aunt Martie lent us. I couldn’t wait for the day when my dad would go to the closet shelf and heave out a giant box of costumes. Even the distinct smell of the rubber masks gave me a rush. It was like Christmas in October.
The only costumes in that box that I remember were a black and white-spotted cow, a pirate, maybe a devil, and an ugly rubber mask with warts on the face and a bump on the forehead. There were also several simple eye masks—the Lone Ranger type—which were the masks du jour in the 50’s. There are a few in this 1950’s photo, such as the one at the bottom left.
When October 31 arrived, we could hardly contain ourselves at school. Thoughts of long division and action verbs gave way to thoughts of spooky fun in the dark and bags filled with enough candy to last until Christmas (yeah, sure).
I lived in a fairly new suburban area that was loaded with kids. I couldn’t say for sure, but I estimate that my parents handed out candy to around 150 kids.
After having “ants in my pants” all day, as my mother used to say, I left my house at 6:00 with pillowcase in hand. Collecting treats in plastic pumpkins wasn’t in vogue at the time. Sometimes one of my sisters joined me. We immediately turned right and rang the doorbell of my next-door neighbor, Mrs. Hill. Every year, she gave out popcorn balls, a ball of popcorn molded with some kind of sugary syrup. I got a few every year, but I didn’t like them and traded them away.
Two houses more, and we met up at my best friend Patty’s house . . . . and the three of us were off and running. We turned onto another road, and two houses up the hill was my Aunt Martie’s. Every year she gave out half-pint cartons of orange drink. When we were done on her street, we sat down on the side of the road and hydrated ourselves with that orange drink.
Then it was back up another hill. Our neighborhood was surrounded by hills in every direction—and they were steep hills. We really worked for our candy.
Some of the most popular treats of that era are still candy icons today: Milky Way, Three Musketeers, Tootsie Rolls, and Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars, among others. The difference is that those bars were full size; fun size had not been “invented” yet.
Clark Bars were especially favored because they originated in Pittsburgh in 1917 and were made there for years afterward, triggering a landmark in downtown Pittsburgh with an illuminated Clark Bar sign that crowned its building. I was pleasantly surprised to see bags of fun-size Clark Bars being sold at Shop ‘n Save last week. I hadn’t seen them for sale in a long time. Sentimentalist that I am, I bought some for my trick-or-treaters (and for me!)
Do you remember any of these candies that filled our trick-or-treat bags in the 50’s and 60’s but are not prevalent today? Lifesavers, Necco Wafers, Bit-O-Honey, Chunky, Mallo Cups, Jujubees. We boomers loved the candy cigarettes.
You were bound to get gum as well, such as Bajooka Joe Bubblegum, Fruit Stripe gum, and Chiclets. If you’re interested in retro gum, see my post “1960’s Gum=Gum Wrapper Chains.“
Trick-or-treating generally went smoothly for us. I remember one year that we got nonstop rain, but that didn’t deter us. My dad drove us from house to house.
But there were never any crises . . . well, maybe except for little sister Sandy, who had been the victim of a heinous crime. As she remembers it, “I was very little, maybe two or three, and I was carrying a pillowcase filled to the brim with candy. Well, unbeknownst to any of us, a little boy had cut open my sack just enough for my candy to come out in a trail, and he was behind me picking it up. I don’t know who discovered it or if we caught the boy or if I got my candy back; I just remember wailing at the top of my lungs.”
You know the saying “shop till you drop.” Well, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, at least in our municipality, there was no curfew for trick-or-treating. So, we trick-or-treated till we dropped, sometimes till 9:30 or later. At that point, we were often maskless, tired of inhaling rubber or being deprived of oxygen by a hard plastic mask. When you were so beat that you couldn’t even summon up the energy to ring one more doorbell for a possible Butterfingers or Sugar Daddy, you knew it was time to quit before you became part of the pavement.
Worn and weary, you’d head home to sort through your booty and snack on a few of your favorites. I hated candy apples. They got dumped in the trash promptly.
Now, I learned from experience that if I did not guard my candy stash, my brother would raid it when I wasn’t around. Being a numbers cruncher when it came to my candy, I knew that he hadn’t taken the Oh Henry’s or Almond Joy’s with nuts that I hated. Oh, no, he would take Milky Ways and Three Musketeers. After suffering multiple losses, I came up with the brilliant idea to hang my laden pillowcase on a clothes hanger way in the back of my closet. As far as I know, I had no candy missing after that. Or is he snickering as he reads this?
The only other issue with Halloween candy that I can recall is that one day I got a Jujubee stuck to a lose tooth. To that point, it hadn’t been quite ready to be extracted, but after working on it for quite some time, I finally felt forced to just yank on the Jujube, dislodging the tooth along with it.
Ah, such great memories. But I continue to have wonderful Halloween memories with my grandchildren and my neighborhood buddies. My house is always decorated, and even though I swear every year that I’ll not buy another Halloween decoration, I usually do. Long live Halloween!
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.