This year, 95% of the 172 million Americans celebrating Halloween plan to buy candy, according to one recent survey. That’s significantly higher than the number of people planning to purchase decorations or costumes. Many of these individuals will likely swarm to one type of product: “fun-size” candy, perfect for the one-bite experience and, more importantly, a fitting choice for trick-or-treating baskets.
But when Halloween celebrations first started to become popular in the U.S. during the early 20th century — even though candy bars had existed since the 1840s — candy wasn’t a central part of the festivities.
“Fruit was a really big part,” Susan Benjamin, author of Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure, tells TIME. “Increasingly into the ‘10s and ‘20s, fruits — delicious grapes, and all sorts of succulent oranges — they would have that at Halloween parties.”
The concept of Halloween as a time for trick-or-treating started spreading in the 1920s. “By the ’60s, [trick-or-treating] was a national event,” Benjamin says. And it was in the decades as trick-or-treating first became more common, Benjamin says, that the country was also becoming more industrial. People began to trust food products that came from machines. “More and more of the foods that we ate as a nation and as a Western world started to be things that were made for us and not things created because they grew,” she explains.
Candy, which was replacing fruit’s role in the holiday, was one of them. But in the 1930s, candy brands were encountering a different problem: the Great Depression.
“By the 1930s, the candy-bar universe was kind of struggling because of the Depression,” Benjamin says. “Sugar was hard to get; people couldn’t afford luxuries.”
As a result, candy-bar makers experimented with new approaches to their products. One of them was that the Curtiss Candy Company — most famously known for Butterfinger and Baby Ruth — began creating smaller versions of their candy bars in the 1930s, as writer Ernie Smith has detailed for Tedium. Curtiss used the term “junior” to advertise the miniaturized, individually wrapped sweets.
“Most likely it was because they wanted them to be affordable,” Benjamin says. Since the “junior” variations are cheaper, “you don’t feel like you’re really putting yourself out there financially and it isn’t a problem to have during the Depression.”
It wasn’t long before competition followed suit.
Mars, Inc. — the company that created M&Ms, Snickers, Twix, Milky Way, 3 Musketeers and other iconic confectioneries still popular today — started to sell smaller versions of their candy bars in 1961. The manufacturer initially adopted the word “junior” to describe its products, then discontinued this version. In 1968, it launched new candies that were slightly larger than the “junior” ones, but still smaller than Mars’ traditionally sized bars. The company used “fun size” to describe this category of sweets.
The rising popularity of the miniaturized candy bars coincided with a major shift toward healthy eating. In It’s All About Nutrition: Saving the Health of Americans, David Bissonnette writes that “already by the 1960s, America’s weight problem was noticeable; roughly 13 percent were obese and 31 percent were overweight.” Public health officials began to pay more attention to the connections between nutrition and chronic diseases, and organizations like Weight Watchers were launched to promote balanced lifestyles. “My bet is one of the reasons for the ‘junior’ size that was later called the ‘fun size,’ was that, at that point, volume was everything,” Benjamin says. “It isn’t like committing to one whole big candy bar with all of its girth and all of its calories.”
In the years that followed, other candy makers, including Curtiss, also began to sell miniaturized candy bars labeled with the term “fun size.” Mars soon objected.
“The word ‘fun’ was a real legal point — why are you calling this ‘fun,’ what makes it ‘fun,’ how can you own a generic word and so forth,” says Benjamin, describing the lawsuit that ensued. Mars registered a trademark for the term “fun size” in Illinois, and sued Curtiss for violating trademark rights. Curtiss argued in the resulting 1972 case that “Mars never considered the term to be a trademark until just prior to instituting this suit.” They also addressed that another company had, in 1926, already trademarked the word “fun” for candy-based use.
“Defendants argue that since Mars could thus not establish proprietary rights in the word ‘fun’ for candy, nor in the unquestionably descriptive word ‘size,’ it certainly cannot be entitled to monopolize the combination,” the court decision reads. Mars lost that case, but kept trying. The company went to the aforementioned firm to buy the registered trademark “fun,” then sued Curtiss’ parent company Standard Brands, Inc., alleging the same infringement.
The court in 1974 denied Standard Brands’ motion for the case to be dismissed, but granted their motion for a stay, meaning the proceeding was paused. The manufacturer’s trademark on this use of “fun” expired in 1998. And although Mars still owns the trademark for “fun size,” plenty of other candy makers sell miniature bars with the same name today.
The company may not be the only one producing “fun size” sweets, but there’s no denying that Mars’ array of miniature candy bars continues to have a dominating presence in the sweets aisle — a fact that’s all the more obvious during trick-or-treating season.