Welcome back to the Bust Your Balloons series, where we’re exploring all the internet has to offer about children’s birthday parties.
Everyone knows that to throw a birthday party, you need invitations, a new party outfit for the birthday kid, a reservation at a party facility that will hold 25 classmates plus all of their parents, disposable tableware, a cake, a gluten-free cake, a camera with a wide-aperture lens for that perfect candle-extinguishing photo, and at least four dozen balloons.
But even that list overlooks the most basic building blocks of a birthday party. To have a birthday to celebrate, you first need the concept of a calendar. Then someone needs to invent birth certificates. Someone else needs to invent freestanding stoves small enough to fit in the servants’ kitchen, and then those servants need access to refined sugar. Then you need candles.
Once you have all of those things, you can host a party, which is why we can trace the roots of the modern birthday party to the Victorians.
According to an article from a University of Illinois Alumni magazine that is frequently cited but apparently invisible, the first birthday parties were designed as early practice in manners. One summary of the article suggests that, in addition to teaching their children manners, adults used the parties to showcase their own wealth, so it’s possible that party favors were as much a gift for attendees as a message to their parents.
And isn’t that kind of what party favors still are? The current birthday party currency might not be actual currency, but thoughtfulness and creativity. I, for example, want other parents to know how clever I am when I send their kids home with these.
I’m not here to take away the treat bags, at least not until I get to distribute those question mark blocks. But I do want to find out what to call them.
What came first, the goody or the goodie?
If you trust a tiny sampling of googlable American newspapers, references to the bags first appeared around 1900. One of the earliest references I’ve found is in an issue of Honolulu’s Pacific Commercial Advertiser from January 1895, describing a Christmas tree filled with “the daintiest ‘goody-goody’ bags made by the King’s daughters,” a tradition that seems consistent with the Victorian attitudes toward party favors.
They pop up in the Topeka State Journal in 1917, where they are described as “‘goodie’ bags” and filled with nuts, fruit, candy, and casual racism.
In 1956, the Allegheny Fraternalist covered a Santa in Milwaukee who “certainly had his hands full” as he distributed “goodie bags” to kids. Writer Gabby Vanguard assures readers that “hilarity reigned,” but she also pauses to reflect: “if I might inject a serious note, it is interesting to see the way these youngsters are growing up.”
Since these early uses, there doesn’t appear to be a fixed spelling for the treat bags littering the floors of our cars. Lenore Skenazy called them “goodie bags” when she complained about them on All Things Considered in 2001, shortly after she witnessed a tantrum when the “only” favor was a pair of binoculars. [You can see the seeds of Free Range Kids in her party favor suggestion: “I think most kids would be just as happy with one of those plywood paddle games if there lived a parent brave enough to offer such a simple toy, and a parent brave enough to let their kid play with it.”]
When Nina Badzin blasted party favors for Brain, Child in 2013, she used “goodie bags.” Alexandra Zissu, whose coverage of over-the-top party favors for the New York Times taught us that some parents are supplying party guests with tennis rackets and personalized lunch boxes, used “goody bag.” So too did Tanya Egan Gibson at Parents. It seems that “goody bag” and “goodie bag” are used interchangeably for both children’s parties and preemptive airline apologies.
The case for “goody”
Those wanting to distribute or rant about “goody” bags have a strong case for the -y ending, because adding “-y” to a noun is a pretty common way to make new adjectives in English.
Goody supporters also have the dictionary. Webster privileges the term goody, as do the Oxford dictionaries. The OED added goody-bag in 2007. But that doesn’t mean the spelling won’t change. Just look at cooky.
One of the archaic meanings of goody is “a usually married woman of lowly station,” which is a pretty accurate reflection of how one might feel when stuffing treat bags at 1 AM on the day of the party. Other common uses of goody include goody-goody, goody two-shoes, and the wearer of a particular brand of messy-bun maker, none of which are a great look.
The case for “goodie”
Those who prefer “goodie” may have the stronger case. An “-ie” is a fitting ending for a little something, at home with a cookie, a brownie, and a sweetie. That “-ie” also makes clear that the bag is full of not one goody, but multiple goodies.
The ending fits well with what we put the goodies in (a baggie) and with how we deflect praise for our Pinterest-worthy party favors (no biggie). I’m a newbie to goodie bag prep, but I get great tips from my son’s auntie, who knows where to buy adorable gummie erasers.
Then again, maybe the preference is just personal, because there’s only one right way to spell Stephanie.