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When Did N.H. Towns Start Calling The Shots On Trick-Or-Treating?

Paul via Flickr CC

Where I grew up in Connecticut, children trick or treat on Halloween night, after dark, for as long as they possibly can.   I called my hometown’s clerk to double check: municipal government has nothing to do with it.

Yet in my current home of Portsmouth, the city website declares “the date and time for 'Trick-or-Treat' activities in Portsmouth this year will be Thursday, October 30th, from 5:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m.”

Credit Microfilm / Portsmouth Public Library
Portsmouth Public Library
Portsmouth Herald, 1963. This was the first year the city appears to have instituted a time limit.

Earlier this week the town of Greenland changed its trick or treating days to accommodate a group of fifth and sixth graders who would be on a class trip October 30.

“I thought this was the ‘Live Free or Die' state!” I complain to my colleague Josh Rogers, a Concord native. 

“Strong local control,” he replies.

I knew I was suffering from severe election fatigue when, the Thursday before election day,  I felt compelled to spend my afternoon at the library feeding spools of microfilm into a Minolta reader trying to get to the bottom of this. After all – I don’t even have kids.

It turns out Granite Staters aren’t the only ones following orders on Halloween from town and city governments. People I’ve spoken to from Maine and Massachusetts are also familiar with this practice. Folks from New York and California – not so much.

David J. Skal, an American cultural historian who has written about Halloween, says in an email that “cities started encouraging trick or treating, even before the term was used, in the 1930s to channel Halloween rowdyism and vandalism into something controllable.” Then, he says, “the 1970s saw the beginning of heavy parental supervision and alternate celebrations in response to growing urban legends about poisoned treats.” Those legends, he adds, “had no real basis in reality.”

Entranced in the whoosh of spinning reels of microfilm at the Portsmouth Public Library, I discovered the city began nosing their way into Halloween before the razor blades and poison scares. At first, I thought it all began the year of 1961: the first year the Portsmouth Herald suggested trick or treating on a day other than Halloween.

Credit Microfilm / Portsmouth Public Library
Portsmouth Public Library
The Portsmouth Herald, October 30, 1961

 On October 30, 1961, the Portsmouth Herald writes: “area residents are advised to lay in goodies for tonight’s invasion of small fry celebrating Halloween with ‘trick-or-treat night.’”

As it happens, the front page of that very paper read “Soviet Russia Explodes The Big One,” a reference to Russia’s testing of the AN602 “Tsar Bomba” hydrogen bomb that same day. The AN602 remains the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated, according to Wikipedia.

But the October 30 warning was a red herring. As City Councilor Jim Splaine explains, the Portsmouth had a long tradition of extending Halloween over multiple nights.

“When I was about 5 until 11 years old, in years 1952 until 1958, in my neighborhood of the North End, the 30th and 31st were Trick-or-Treat nights,” Splaine wrote in an email. Another Portsmouth resident, Martin Burns, recalls that in the early 1970s “the kids did trick or treat locally the day before Halloween and then they used to go to the [Air Force] base on Halloween and trick or treat again.”

And even today, Halloween expert and writer Lesley Bannatyne says, some lucky kids in Midwest towns "trick or treat the entire week beforehand."

As for when Portsmouth began recommending specific hours for trick or treating, that appears to be 1963.

Credit Microfilm / Portsmouth Public Library
Portsmouth Public Library
The Portsmouth Herald, November 1, 1960

“’Trick or Treat, Money or Eats’ will  be the cry heard all over Portsmouth tonight,” declared the Portsmouth Herald on Wednesday October 30, 1963, “be on the lookout for the youngsters between the hours of 5 and 7, as only one call will be made to each home.”

For the record, the headlines that day also included “Goldwater ‘Stumps’ For Bridges Memorial.”

And yet there are so many unanswered questions. When did trick-or-treating become reduced to one night only? And why did towns start implementing a time limit? If you've got clues, send them my way.

Reporter's note: 

When I was embarking on my research for this story, I posed the question on r/newhampshire, asking the community there if anyone knew about the origin's of New Hampshire's particular trick or treat rule-making.

A redditor who goes by u/lillipout went all in and did some research of his or her own, and later posted this very informed comment. I've edited it slightly for this post, but you can read the thread here:

I thought your question was very interesting , so I spent some time looking through old newspapers for clues. Why do we do what everyone says we've always done?

Anyway, I have access to archives of the Nashua Telegraph and Portsmouth Herald, but not pre-1989 Union Leader. I have to go the city library for that. (NT and PH can also be found at Google News).

Some things I noticed:

  • In the Oct 31, 1947 Nashua Telegraph the reporter talks about how across the country about 10 years before, incidents of vandalism had gotten out of control and police chiefs across the country were looking for solutions to tame the holiday and prevent it from going out of control (shooting out streetlights, setting fires, business windows waxed or soaped, houses painted, etc).

  • In the Nov 1 1939 Nashua Telegraph, the first annual citywide Halloween celebration with parties and activities for children and teens was reported as a huge success. It was organized by the police department and American Legion in response to significant property damage in prior years. The 1940 paper says the second annual event was a big success, too.

  • A theme in the 1940s articles is that this Halloween was not as bad as previous Halloweens.

  • In the 1940s and 1950s Halloween is referred to as a two or three night event including "Beggar's Night", then Halloween. The last time I read about Halloween being a multi-day event was in a 1954 edition of the Nashua Telegraph.

  • Reports of trouble drop off in the 1950s, the (Portsmouth Herald for example barely mentions it at all) but rise again in the early 1960s.

  • In 1964, the all-but-forgotten Hampton Beach Riot seems to spook everyone, no pun intended. For the rest of the 1960s, the Halloween notices in the papers take on a harsh tone, discuss schedules and mention penalties for non-compliance. Governor King that year even goes on TV to request peace and calm. A lot of additional police are called up that year, too.

  • I should point out that Halloween was already being scheduled in Nashua area communities before that. Some articles mention gangs and greater than normal mischief.

  • I didn't find an article that spelled out precisely why towns were scheduling Halloween for a few hours and not necessarily on Halloween night. It seems to have come as a response to increasing mischief and vandalism after a quiet period in the 1950s, plus a desire to confine the need for extra police to a single day. Keep in mind that I spent only a short time researching this and didn't get a chance to check the UL.

I uploaded a bunch of clippings to imgur albums. Maybe you'll find them interesting or useful: and (NT=Nashua Telegraph, PH=Portsmouth Herald.)

Good luck with your piece!

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