What would Halloween be without store-bought costumes that reflect the year’s hottest movies and TV shows? For nearly a century, kids have been able to purchase Halloween costumes in stores. But that wasn’t always a given—and we have a bold impresario to thank for the tradition.

Back in the 1930s, Ben Cooper created the market for licensed Halloween costumes, and he revolutionized the way we see Halloween in the process. Pretty much anyone who remembers wearing a cheap mask and flimsy matching outfit to trick-or-treat when they were a kid owes Cooper a nod of acknowledgment.

It all started in the 1920s when Cooper, a theatrical costume designer, created looks for Broadway’s lavish Ziegfeld Follies variety shows and the Cotton Club in Harlem, where America’s top black performers played to white audiences during the heyday of American jazz music. But in the 1930s, when theatrical tastes shifted away from the stage to film and radio, Cooper was left struggling for revenue—until he hit on a brilliant idea.

Trick-or-Treaters in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1960. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)
Trick-or-Treaters in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1960. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

At the time, Halloween—long considered a pagan holiday—was growing in popularity. During the 1920s and 1930s, schools and communities began to catch the All Hallows bug, and kids started to dress up to trick-or-treat. Cooper saw a hole in the market for mass-produced costumes. So he started selling cheap masks and outfits for the holiday.

Cooper wasn’t the first to sell disposable Halloween costumes: Since 1910, the Dennison Manufacturing Company had sold cheap paper costumes for people to slip over their clothes. Cooper took the concept one step further by creating silk-screened fabric costumes and pairing them with masks.

It was a good idea, but it got even better in 1937. That’s when Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature film. The movie was outrageously popular, and Cooper shrewdly realized that kids would want to dress up as movie’s scary, witchy stepmother for Halloween. So he approached Disney with a proposition: a licensing agreement for Snow White costumes. Disney agreed, and Cooper started raking in the cash.

Detail of Ben Cooper Inc. Mickey Mouse costume. (Courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com Archive and Hudson Valley Antiques- Horsefeathers)
Detail of Ben Cooper Inc. Mickey Mouse costume. (Courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com Archive and Hudson Valley Antiques- Horsefeathers)

Initially, Halloween celebrations focused on the spooky and supernatural, and many popular kids’ costumes were of witches, devils and ghouls. But Cooper was savvy enough to realize that kids who watched movies— and later television—would want to dress up as their favorite characters, whether they were scary or not. He also knew their parents wouldn’t necessarily want to help them make these complicated costumes.

As mass media brought the same characters to more and more kids, Cooper was there to provide them with costumes of their fictional heroes. Through partnerships with companies like A.S. Fishbach, which had licenses to many other Disney characters, Cooper expanded his business. (The companies later merged.)

Television and postwar prosperity meant even more business for Cooper. But Halloween competition was stiff. As pop culture expert Terence Towles Canote notes, Cooper’s rivals, Halco and Collegeville, competed for licensing rights to popular TV and movie characters. Eventually, the companies carved out niches—Collegeville snagged Warner Brothers, Halco had the animated network Terrytoons and the long-running Western drama Gunsmoke. But Cooper remained a savvy competitor. He foresaw that kids would dress as more than their favorite TV characters and made sure to secure licenses for comic book properties like Superman and Batman and figures from popular films like the Star Wars movies, too.

Late 1970s Star Wars costume from Ben Cooper Inc. (Credit: Chris Jepsen/Flickr Creative Commons/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Late 1970s Star Wars costume from Ben Cooper Inc. (Credit: Chris Jepsen/Flickr Creative Commons/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the 1960s, Ben Cooper, Inc. went even further and expanded into costumes featuring real people. That backfired in 1963 when the company had to destroy thousands of masks of John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy after JFK’s assassination. The company’s masks of politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan fared better, however.

Though the company Cooper created essentially invented the market for disposable licensed costumes, his Halloween empire faltered and eventually failed during the 1980s. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the company filed for bankruptcy multiple times, and in 1992 Ben Cooper, Inc. was acquired by Rubie’s Costume Company. These days, the Cooper family sells a selection of nostalgic merchandise in the company’s classic aesthetic.

1950s Disney Zorro costume from Ben Cooper Inc. (Courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com Archive and Milestone Auctions)
1950s Disney Zorro costume from Ben Cooper Inc. (Courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com Archive and Milestone Auctions)

Ben Cooper, Inc. may be no more, but its legacy continues. Today, it’s a given that most people will purchase Halloween costumes from stores, while licensing continues to ensure that the hottest superheroes, TV characters and movie stars are destined to become costumes on shelves. The concept Cooper created is as synonymous with Halloween as candy.

You can still find Ben Cooper costumes in the hands of rabid Halloween collectors. Though Cooper initially sold his costumes for about $2, they’re worth much more today.

“Since they were made to be worn once, it’s a miracle these costumes survived,” collector Bruce Elsass told Country Living in 2007. Of course, the princesses and villains that were thrown in the trash still live on in the memories of the kids who wore them trick-or-treating.