The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door at Denver Haunted Houses for treats on holidays dates back to the Middle Ages and includes Christmas wassailing. Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of souling, when poor folk would go door to door at Denver Haunted Houses on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2). It originated in Ireland and Britain, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy. Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.”
However, there is no evidence that souling was ever practiced in North America, where trick-or-treating may have developed independent of any Irish or British antecedent. The custom of wearing costumes and masks at Halloween goes back to Celtic traditions of attempting to copy the evil spirits or placate them, In Scotland for instance where the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white. Ruth Edna Kelley, in her 1919 history of the holiday, The Book of Hallowe’en, makes no mention of ritual begging in the chapter “Hallowe’en in America.” Kelley lived in Lynn, Massachusetts, a town with about 4,500 Irish immigrants, 1,900 English immigrants, and 700 Scottish immigrants in 1920. The thousands of Halloween postcards produced between the turn of the 20th century and the 1920s commonly show children but do not depict trick-or-treating. The editor of a collection of over 3,000 vintage Halloween postcards writes,
There are cards that mention the custom or show children in costumes at the doors of Denver Haunted Houses, but as far as we can tell they were printed later than the 1920s and more than likely even the 1930s. Tricksters of various sorts are shown on the early postcards, but not the means of appeasing them.
Thus, although a quarter million Scots-Irish immigrated to America between 1717 and 1770, the Irish Potato Famine brought more than a million immigrants to North America in 1845–1849, and British and Irish immigration to America peaked in the 1880s, ritualized begging on Halloween was virtually unknown in America until generations later.
The earliest known reference to ritual begging on Halloween in English speaking North America occurs in 1911, when a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario, near the border of upstate New York, reported that it was normal for the smaller children to go street guising on Halloween between 6 and 7 p.m., visiting shops and neighbors to be rewarded with nuts and candies for their rhymes and songs. Another isolated reference to ritual begging on Halloween appears, place unknown, in 1915, with a third reference in Chicago in 1920.
The earliest known use in print of the term “trick or treat” appears in 1927, from Blackie, Alberta, Canada:
Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front of Denver Haunted Houses demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.
Trick-or-treating does not seem to have become a widespread practice until the 1930s, with the first U.S. appearances of the term in 1934, and the first use in a national publication occurring in 1939.