October's Original Candy Holiday? 'Candy Day'

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This image of film star Theda Bara giving candy to orphan girls was first published in The Cleveland Press on October 5, 1921.



Editor's note: This is the second post in a pre-Halloween series about candy. To read the first post, on the origins of trick-or-treating, click here.

Sometime in 1916, the candy people looked at their empty fall calendars and decided what America needed was a new candy holiday, a day to celebrate all things candy, to eat candy with extra enthusiasm, and not coincidentally, to give candy sales a boost in advance of the Christmas holiday season. But the holiday wasn't Halloween. The word went forth from the National Confectioners Association: The second Saturday of October would henceforth be known as "Candy Day."

Candy Day, the day when every man, woman, and child would be urged to forget minor affairs and see to it that someone was sent a box or bag or bucket of candy.

In anticipation of October 14, 1916, the candy trade journals beat the drum to encourage local candy shops to feature Candy Day promotions. Sample signs were published, as well as "articles" that could be sent to local papers extolling the virtues of Candy Day and candy eating:

The true "Candy Day" spirit is apart from the idea of just stimulating a greater consumption of candy. This will naturally follow a national educational campaign exploiting the real food value of candy—pure candy. The "Spirit of Candy Day" proper may be interpreted as a spirit of good will, appreciation and good fellowship.

The sentiments were noble. But behind the scenes, the intentions were no secret:

The only motive of the [NCA Executive Committee] is to aid every Manufacturer, Jobber and Retailer in increasing his profits through increased sales on "Candy Day." ...

It's simply asking you if you want to make some extra money, and if you do, you are requested to go ahead and push this "Candy Day" idea.

(All quotations from "Nation Wide Candy Day," Candy and Ice Cream July 1916, p. 34-35)

There's no getting around it. Candy Day was an entirely invented holiday with one purpose: to sell candy.

Once the distracting business of World War I was safely concluded, Candy Day became a major cause among many leading candy manufacturers and retailers. Candy Day was promoted with varying degrees of success in 1919 and 1920, and slowly caught on in some cities. But it wasn't until 1921 that someone figured out how to give Candy Day some real traction. In that year, the organizers in Cleveland had a brilliant idea: to launch the day with a high-profile giveaway of candy to orphans and old ladies.

Celebrities were recruited and newspapers alerted to the stunt. It was a savvy maneuver to outflank the public's emerging suspicion of being manipulated by self-serving business interests. Candy Day was re-christened "Sweetest Day," and the promotional emphasis shifted from flat-out candy sales to the finer feelings of romance, gratitude, and generosity.

In sentimental promotions for Sweetest Day, candy barely was named:

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This image of newsboy "Jimmy" was published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 8, 1922.

The Sweetest Day in the year came into being because the founders recognized the eternal tendency of men and women to become so engaged in the rush and whirl of life, and to forget the finer, more appealing things. On this day, next Saturday, steal enough time from the turmoil of routine affairs, to bring a bit of good cheer to those you love. A present, perhaps, and more than that add a loving word—a smile—a kiss.

And you might not have known candy had anything to do with the day, until you noticed who was on the Sweetest Day committees, year after year. Confectioners, druggists, retailers, anyone with a finger in the candy pie.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and into the 1950s and 1960s, Sweetest Day continued to be celebrated on the second or third Saturday of October. The emphasis continued to be on the higher sentiments of generosity and charity, and at some point, a "legend" surrounding Sweetest Day emerged:

Legend has it that Sweetest Day was established around 1922 by Herbert Birch Kingston, a Cleveland, Ohio, candy company employee who wanted to bring happiness to the lives of those who often were forgotten. Kingston and others distributed candy and small gifts to orphans, shut-ins and others to show them someone cared. (Hallmark)

An enterprising Wikipedia muckraker has unearthed the record for Herbert Birch Kingston in the 1920 census: his profession is listed as "advertiser." In any event, I have been unable to find any other mention of this Herbert Kingston in contemporaneous documents. As for the remainder of this account of Sweetest Day origins in charitable impulses, it is entirely fictitious.

The legend of Herbert Birch Kingston is useful nonetheless. Both Hallmark and the trade group Retail Confectioners International repeat this story on their Sweetest Day information pages. The Kingston myth supports the idea that Sweetest Day is not just another selling opportunity, but what RCI calls an "occasion which offers all of us an opportunity to remember not only the sick, aged and orphaned, but also friends, relatives and associates whose helpfulness and kindness we have enjoyed." Of course, when the retail confectioners say to "remember" someone, what they probably mean is "send candy."

Today Sweetest Day is reportedly observed in just a few cities, including Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland. It's not surprising: Halloween is all the occasion we seem to need these days to eat candy from mid-September all the way until Thanksgiving. The candy industry may have lost the battle for Candy Day. But just gaze on those pounds and pounds of fun-size black-and-orange wrapped treats. Halloween turns out to have been the real candy prize anyway.

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Samira Kawash researches and writes on the cultural and social history of candy in 20th-century America. She is professor emerita, Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ). She blogs on candy history and opinion at CandyProfessor.com.

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