Trick-or-treating is one of the biggest Halloween traditions. This takes place in just about every town in the USA. But where did this tradition originate?
Trick or treating is not only popular in the USA but also in the United Kingdom, Ireland (the birth place of Halloween), and Canada. Due to increased American cultural influence in recent years, imported through exposure to US television and other media, trick-or-treating has started to occur among children in many parts of Europe.
Dressing up in costumes is an ancient Halloween tradition which was done to either scare or "blend" in with the ghostly spirits that were believed to return to the earthly world on October 31. The door to door tradition of our current Halloween closely resembles the practice of "Souling". Souling originated in Ireland and Britian where poor people would go door to door on November 1 and receive food in return for prayers for the dead. Shakespeare even mention this practice in his play called "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (1593) with a character accusing someone of "puling" (whining) like a beggar at Hallowmas.
However there is no evidence that souling was ever practiced in America. There is little documentation of this practice but very likely these traditions were brought over with Irish and English immigrants. The earliest known reference to our modern trick or treating is a newspaper article from 1911 from upstate New York. It reported that it was normal for small children to go street guising on Halloween between 6-7 pm, visiting shops and neighbors who would give them nuts and sweets when the children sang songs and recited rhymes.
But the practice did not seem to be widespread until the 1930's when the word trick or treat is found in print. The popularity was diminished during WWII due to sugar rationing. It became firmly established in the 1950's with movies and TV such as Disney and Ozzie & Harriet portraying the tradition.
So it rather remains a mystery of how and why trick or treating by children developed in America. While thousand of Irish and English immigrants who practiced souling came here beginning in the 1840's, the tradition did not become established for over 100 years. It is not depicted in the thousands of Halloween postcards that were produced from the turn of the century to 1920. Nor is it mentioned in a popular book from 1919 call "The Book of Hallowe'en" which described Halloween customs.
However I do have photos of my father in a Halloween costume with a trick or treat bag from the early 1920's. Possibly the tradition was not written or recorded by mainstream America due to the resemblance of begging and being an "immigrant" custom.