The origins of Sweetest Day (UPDATED)

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Silent movie star Theda Bara helped distribute thousands of boxes of candy during the first Sweetest Day, October 18, 1921, in Cleveland, Ohio.

By Mitch Allen

Sweetest Day originated in October of 1916 as “Candy Day,” a promotion launched by the National Confectioner’s Association. The campaign’s slogan was: “The Sweetest Day in the Year.” Although the holiday was cancelled in 1917 due to a sugar shortage related to World War I, it was reborn as “Sweetest Day” in 1921 in Cleveland, Ohio, with help from Herbert Birch Kingston, an advertising company president who repositioned the holiday as a day to give treats to the lonely and underprivileged.

In December 1991, when I moved from my hometown of Columbus, Georgia to take a newspaper job in Akron, Ohio, I experienced severe culture shock. That first long, grey winter (coupled with an early and unfortunate discovery that fried sauerkraut balls are not hushpuppies) helped me realize that I wasn't in Dixie anymore. 

Early on I learned that interstate traffic can come to a standstill because of “sun glare,” and that employees don’t call in sick; they “call off.” I even learned how to properly pronounce “pierogi.” But the most perplexing cultural concept in the Great Lakes region is the annual holiday known as “Sweetest Day,” which to virgin ears invariably sounds like “Swedish Day.”

“What are you getting your wife for Swedish Day?” a fellow staffer asked me the following October.

“What are you talking about?” I replied. “We’re not Swedish.”

Sweetest Day is the third Saturday in October, but those living outside of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and the western edges of Pennsylvania and New York have likely never heard of it, and those living within the region are hard-pressed to tell you how the tradition got started (no, it was not invented by Hallmark, American Greetings or Malley’s Chocolates). And while residents of the holiday’s founding city—Cleveland, Ohio—are almost certainly aware of the day, it is difficult to find a man sporting a Browns sweatshirt on the third Saturday of October who seems eager to celebrate it.

The problem with Sweetest Day is that it has a severe inferiority complex. That’s because we have come to view it as “a second Valentine’s Day,” when, in fact, the holiday has its own rightful origins rooted not in romance, but in philanthropy—small, sweet acts of kindness directed to the less fortunate. 

But before we can understand those tender roots, we must first go back to 1916 to the forerunner of Sweetest Day—“Candy Day.”

Candy Day
On May 10, 1916, nearly 450 “candy men” gathered at the Statler Hotel in Detroit, Michigan, for the 33rd annual convention of the National Confectioners’ Association. 

During the convention, members approved a motion that a given Saturday in the month of October each year would be designated as “Candy Day,” declaring, “A little effort and hard work by all hands in our industry will make Candy Day the happiest and sweetest day in the year.”

In spite of the effort, however, the first Candy Day—October 14, 1916—was a flop. Local promotions did gain a little traction in Cincinnati, but the success was short-lived. One year later, Candy Day (now regularly referred to as “the sweetest day in the year”) was cancelled due to a minor distraction known as World War I.

After preparations were nearly complete for the October 6, 1917 celebration, the promotion was abruptly halted when Herbert Hoover, head of the U. S. Food Administration and future U.S. president, firmly reminded the National Confectioners’ Association that Candy Day ran contrary to the war effort to conserve sugar. 

The industry’s monthly bulletin, The International Confectioner, noted, “As Mr. Hoover had requested everyone, everywhere, to cut down as much as possible on their usings of sugar, he considered that Candy Day was an effort on the part of our industry in the very opposite direction.”

Concerned at being labeled unpatriotic, the association sent urgent telegrams instructing its members to immediately “discontinue further activities and publicity” related to Candy Day.

The First Sweetest Day
After the end of World War I, Candy Day was all but dead until Herbert Birch Kingston—president of the Kingston Co. (a Cleveland advertising company)—reimagined the holiday not as a way to sell candy, but as motivation to help those less fortunate. Under Kingston’s apparent guidance, eight Cleveland confectioners came together in 1921 to form the “Sweetest Day in the Year” committee. 

Although the internet is now littered with claims that the first Sweetest Day occurred in 1922, it was, in fact, these eight gentlemen who organized the first holiday—October 8, 1921—in Cleveland, Ohio. During the process, Kingston himself must have fallen under the spell of Sweetest Day, as the 1930 census lists him no longer as the president of an advertising company, but as the proprietor of a confectionery.

As part of the first Sweetest Day promotions, two silent movie stars—Ann Pennington, who later shocked the nation by appearing nude in the 1925 film, The Mad Dancer, and Theda Bara, the original queen of Goth who became a household name after starring in the elaborate, Cleopatra—came to Cleveland to help promote the holiday. 

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the committee distributed 10,000 boxes of candy to Cleveland’s orphanages and charitable institutions, and that the two silent movie stars passed out thousands more at local theaters. In addition, 2,500 “newsboys” were expected to “storm the Cleveland Advertising Club” to receive candy from Ann Pennington.

Carleton C. Hartzell, chairman of the “Sweetest Day in the Year” committee, explained that the purpose of the day was to bring happiness to everyone, adding, “Everywhere we went, we were greeted with cheers. At the Eliza Jennings Home, one old lady told us, with tears in her eyes, that no one ever thought of giving them candy.”

Should We Still Celebrate Sweetest Day?
Sweetest Day is not a “Hallmark holiday,” as skeptics in the Great Lakes region have come to call it, but it is rooted in promoting the sale of a product, namely candy. Given that rather commercialized heritage, should we even be celebrating it?

The answer is a resounding “yes.”

Sweetest Day has its genesis in random acts of kindness, but we have somehow reduced its status to a second-rate Valentine’s Day. According to Hallmark (which did not produce Sweetest Day greeting cards until the mid-1960s), the holiday is now expanding throughout the country. In 2015, the company will offer 70 different versions of Sweetest Day greeting cards, most of which will be given to spouses or significant others, with 80 percent having “a ‘love’ or ‘romance’ theme,” in the style of Valentine’s Day.

There is nothing wrong with the tradition of doing something valentine-like for the romantic love of our lives each year on the third Saturday in October, but we should also return the day to Herbert Birch Kingston’s original vision: “To bring a little happiness into the lives of orphans, shut-ins and others who were often forgotten.” 

Kingston clearly intended Sweetest Day to be a day of philanthropy, an occasion to express kindness and tenderness to each other, particularly to those who often go unrecognized.

Viewed in this light, the question “What are you doing for Sweetest Day?” might be better answered:

“I’m volunteering at a food pantry.” 
“We’re taking cupcakes to the staff at our local hospice.” 
“My kids and I are raking leaves at our elderly neighbor’s house.” 
“I’m passing out presents to kids at our local children’s hospital.”
“We’re delivering candy to a homeless shelter.”

Of course, the “often forgotten” are not necessarily elderly, sick, or underprivileged, so why not offer a sweet token of appreciation to your postal carrier or the clerk at the grocery store? 

Kingston’s goal was to encourage each of us to express a more spiritual love that so often goes unexpressed—the love we have for strangers.

In a letter to Hallmark dated October 9, 2000, Herbert Kingston’s youngest daughter, the late Janet Kingston Knapp, expressed her appreciation to the company for acknowledging her father’s role in the creation of Sweetest Day. She wrote:

“This day meant very much to my father and he would be so happy that it is still being celebrated now, even though it is a little different. My Dad was the kindest, loving man, not only to his children but to everyone.” (Letter courtesy of Mr. Hugh Knapp)

Those of us living in the Cleveland area have every reason to puff our chests with pride that Sweetest Day is a Northeast Ohio phenomenon with solid, national momentum. This October 18, there is perhaps no better way to share our culture with the rest of the world than with a little love and tenderness.

But if you’re still asking yourself whether Sweetest Day is a “real” holiday and whether you should celebrate it, consider this advice from the 16th century Italian poet Torquato Tasso: “Any time not spent on love is wasted.”

Happy Sweetest Day, y’all.

View a video of The History of Sweetest Day.

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