[At the beginning of this month, I posted a tribute to my late mother, who died in May 2015 at 92. (See “Mom,” 1 November.) I wrote about some of the things we did together for fun, from my childhood when we still did things as a family to the more recent years when my mother and I were alone to amuse ourselves. About a month ago, an article in the New York Times reminded me of another connection to my mom—not something we had done together, but something we talked about. The coincidence was a little too strong for me to overlook, so I’ve written about the connection and the historical background the Times article revealed. You may find it interesting, especially if you have a link to New York City through someone in your past.]
Years ago, my mother told me about something she remembered from her childhood that she couldn’t explain. Mom was a native New Yorker but moved to New Jersey with her family when she was very young—about 7, I think, which would make it around 1930. But there was still a lot of family in New York City—my grandfather, for instance, had three sisters who all had daughters around my mother’s age with whom Mom was very close—so my grandparents and their two daughters used to drive into the city often for visits, family events, and holidays.
One of those holidays was Thanksgiving and my mother’s family drove in via lower Manhattan, presumably through the Holland Tunnel (the Lincoln didn’t open until Mom was 14). Mom said she remembered seeing kids downtown—in the lower Village, it seemed—all dressed in costumes like Halloween, except on Thanksgiving, but she couldn’t remember what it was for. I questioned her to be sure she wasn’t confusing two memories (we were talking about what may have been an 80-year-old memory from when she was very young). She insisted she remembered just what she told me.
I had no idea what Mom could have been recalling. Obviously, nothing like that has gone on since I’ve lived here. I also had no idea how to look up something like that, but I wrote to the New York Times. As some readers may know, the Sunday paper has a column called “F.Y.I.” (now published occasionally in the “Metropolitan” section, but which previously appeared weekly in that section’s predecessors) that fields questions from readers about the New York metro area just like this one. Unfortunately, the Times never ran the query and I never followed up.
As it happens, when I was at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the Village with my friend Diana early last month, we walked over to Hudson Street-8th Avenue to catch a cab back up to my neighborhood where she left her car. The location prompted me to tell her Mom’s story—but even though Diana’s a New Yorker, too, and older than I, she hadn’t ever heard of kids dressing up in costumes at Thanksgiving.
Well, I was reading the Times on Saturday night, 22 October, including the parts of the Sunday edition that come with the Saturday paper. Among those was the “Metropolitan” section, which that week contained an “F.Y.I.” column, responding to the question:
Before Halloween trick-or-treating caught on, wasn’t there a different holiday in New York in which costumed children went around asking for treats?
Lo and behold! the answer was all about Ragamuffin Day. Observed on Thanksgiving Day, kids dressed as thieves, beggars, bums, and hobos and went door to door asking, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” Neighbors handed out pennies and other swag. In some communities, there were even ragamuffin parades, precursors of today’s Thanksgiving Day parades. Ragamuffin Day was popular in New York City—a few other places also had it—from before the turn of the 20th century until about 1941, when Congress formally established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November and Halloween became a popular unofficial celebration of ghosts and goblins when kids got dressed up. That’s the exact time-frame Mom was talking about in her recollection!
It’s terrific that entirely by accident—though synchronicity and serendipity played a part, I think—Mom’s vague memory that I could never confirm or even identify has been documented. I did a quick search of the New York Times archive and there are plenty of old articles referencing ragamuffins and Google Images has photos from the 1900s through the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s of kids in costume for Ragamuffin Day.
The story of Ragamuffin Day seems to be as follows (I’ve had to piece this account together from numerous sources and there are some, mostly inconsequential, discrepancies):
Thanksgiving had always been a traditional holiday, even during colonial times. It’s basic purpose was the same as today: celebrate the harvest, honor the first settlers who braved harsh conditions and uncertainty, and make a gesture of gratitude and friendship to the American natives the Europeans displaced. But it was observed on different days as local traditions arose and with many different rituals and practices—often a meal of some kind, but not always. Customs ranged from elaborate feasts to displays of charity to religious observations to parades and pageants to games and athletic competitions (a forerunner, perhaps, of the football bowl games today’s celebrants like to watch).
In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father” and set the day of observance as the last Thursday of November. The proclamation, however, had the force of an executive order and had to be reissued by each succeeding president—who could, although any seldom did, change the particulars of the day or date of the observance. Then in 1941, both houses of Congress passed a resolution setting the date for the official Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November (which occasionally has five Thursdays) every year.
Though Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, was a Christian holiday since the Middle Ages (it may have been a Christianized pagan celebration that predates even that, but that origin’s disputed), it was not an important holiday in America until the mid-19th century when large numbers of Irish, who had been observing All Hallow’s Eve for centuries, and Scottish immigrants arrived. Other immigrant groups, such as Germans and later Africans, added their national traditions as well, making Halloween in the United States a uniquely American celebration. Observance was confined to the immigrant community until the late 19th century, however, and wasn’t assimilated into the mainstream society until the 20th century. By the first decade of the new century, Halloween had become a popular celebration among all strata of U.S. society across the whole country, irrespective of ethnicity or faith. Civic organizations and schools even got into the act, transforming what had really been an ad hoc festival into an unofficial but universally sanctioned holiday. By the 1920s and ’30s, Halloween parties for adults as well as children became fashionable and the religious, occult, and superstitious aspects of the holiday fell away, making it about secular fun, community, and enjoyment. It was at this time, too, that the practice of trick-or-treating was revived—possibly transferred from the waning observance of Ragamuffin Day.
According to one report, the ragamuffin tradition stemmed from the late 18th century, “when grown homeless men, during the holidays, would dress in women’s clothing and beg for food and money.” Some believe that its origins are in the immigrant communities in the cities who brought their folk traditions to America with them but no longer had a celebration onto which to graft them. So they borrowed Thanksgiving for their carnival masquerade. The mummery became popular among the native-born who spread the practice throughout New York City.
From about 1870, however, children in New York City and some other cities and towns dressed up as “ragamuffins” (shabbily clothed, dirty children, according to the American Heritage Dictionary) in exaggerated rags and cast-offs too big for them (often their parents’ old duds), generally wearing masks or face-paint (charcoal or burnt cork was commonly used as “make-up”), and went from house to house asking, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” On Friday, 1 December 1899, the day after Thanksgiving was celebrated in New York that year, a Times article reported:
The chief feature of the day was the street charivari, not only of the girls and boys, but of young men and women. Thanksgiving masquerading has never been more universal. Fantastically garbed youngsters and their elders were on every corner of the city. Not a few of the maskers and mummers wore disguises that were recognized as typifying a well-known character or myth. There were Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sams, John Bulls, Harlequins, bandits, sailors, soldiers in khaki suits, Deweys, and Columbines that well supported their roles. The mummery, as a rule, was limited to boys in women’s skirts or in masks. In the poorer quarters a smear of burnt cork and a dab of vermillion sufficed for babbling celebrants. Some of the masqueraders were on bicycles. others on horseback, a few in vehicles. All had a great time. The good-humored crowd abroad was generous with pennies and nickels, and the candy stores did a land-office business.
(Note that November of 1899 was one, the last Thursday of which was the fifth one. A charivari, or shivaree, is a “loud, cacophonous noise or hubbub,” according to Wiktionary. The “vehicles” some maskers rode were probably horse-drawn carriages or carts, but the horseless carriage, though not yet common on the streets—and quite expensive—was invented more than 20 yeas earlier. Columbine is a stock character in Renaissance Italian commedia dell’Arte and the English harlequinades or pantomimes, popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, derived from them. She’s depicted as a lovely young woman, dressed as a serving girl, to whom Harlequin is romantically attracted. Dewey seems to be the philosopher John Dewey, 1859-1952, though I don’t understand why New York ragamuffins would want to dress like him; somehow I doubt it’s a reference to Melvil Dewey, 1851-1931, the librarian who invented the Dewey Decimal System of cataloguing books; New York State Governor Thomas E. Dewey, 1902-71, wasn’t even born when the article above was written. If anyone has a more likely idea, I’d love to hear it! I can’t begin to guess why children would dress like Filipinos—except that the United States had annexed the archipelago the year before as booty from the Spanish-American War and then the hard-fought and bloody Philippine-American War, 1898-1902. Why any of that history would inspire Ragamuffin Day costumes, I don’t see.)
One Virginia reporter in 1911 described the scene in the streets of New York:
On that one day at least the children literally take possession of the streets, ride all over the street cars, even on the fenders; impersonate Uncle Sam, George Washington and other characters that suit their fancy; dress in all sorts of costumes, that of the ragamuffin having the preference; mask, black their faces, parade, blow horns, ride sorry horses, prance astride of broomsticks and generally enjoy themselves to the limit of their temporary liberty.
It wasn’t uncommon for boys to dress in travesties of their mothers’ attire, as noted by John J. O’Leary (b. 1932) in Playing It Well (Trafford Publishing, 2011): “[W]e would dress up in . . . Mother’s old clothes, make up our faces with . . . Mother’s face powder, lipstick and rouge to go from door to door in the neighborhood.” Even in her beloved 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith writes that her main character’s brother, Neely Nolan, dressed in
one of mama’s discarded dresses hacked off ankle length in the front to enable him to walk. The uncut back made a dirty dragging train. He stuffed wadded newspapers in the front to make an enormous bust. His broken-out brass-tipped shoes stuck out in front of the dress. Lest he freeze, he wore a ragged sweater over the ensemble. With this costume, he wore the death mask and one of papa’s discarded derbies cocked on his head. Only it was too big and wouldn’t cock and rested on his ears.
The treats that the ragamuffins (also known as Thanksgiving Maskers) collected were generally pennies, fruit, and candy. In a 1909 sermon, the Rev. James M. Farrar, a minister and the former president of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, advised children on the best way to amass the most swag:
On Thanksgiving morning put on old, patched but warm shoes; old, ragged but warm clothes; paint your face or put on masks and then go out into the crisp morning for an hour[’]s fun. Collect all the pennies the people will give; get dimes and dollars if you can. Tell the people the money is for the poor. Then scamper home.
(Reverend Farrar then counseled his young parishioners to bring the money to the church when they came for Thanksgiving services and put it in the offering plate.)
Later, as the practice became more widespread and popular, the costumes became more diverse, beginning to resemble those worn later in the 20th century at Halloween, such as Indians, devils, Uncle Sams, harlequins, bandits, sailors, and characters from cartoons and popular children’s fiction such as Huck Finn, Tiger Lilly, and Long John Silver; eventually Disney characters and even objects and figures like alarm clocks and Michelangelo joined the throng. During the Great Depression (approximately 1929-39), as you might imagine, Ragamuffin Day was especially popular—and the phenomenon drew to an end at about the same time that the economic crisis did. By then, Thanksgiving Day had become formalized and circumspect and the ragamuffin parades had morphed into an organized and regulated Thanksgiving Day parade (the one in New York City sponsored by R. H. Macy & Co. began in 1924, the year the Herald Square store opened) and dressing up for Halloween and going trick-or-treating became the popular (and slightly anarchic) phenomenon we know today. (In New York there’s also famously a less-regulated parade through Greenwich Village on Halloween night since 1974.)
It would have been during the Depression years, essentially between about 1930 and and the end of the practice in the early 1940s, when my mother and her family would have driven into Manhattan and up through the Village, Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen (now known as Clinton) to the Upper West Side, where Mom’s aunts and cousins all lived. Given the popularity of Ragamuffin Day, it’s hardly surprising that an eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old girl would have noticed the clutches of children her own age costumed and engaging in what we now call “trick-or-treating” around their neighborhoods. (Mom never said that she and her sister, four years younger, or the cousins who were Mom’s playmates had gone out on Thanksgiving dressed as ragamuffins. She may therefore also have been a little envious.)
The practice was accepted by many, like Reverend Farrar (who actually encouraged it) and others were simply resigned to its continuation; but a few decades later, some New Yorkers began to call for ending the begging and mocking the poor. In the words of A Tree Grows, “The street was jammed with masked and costumed children making a deafening din with their penny tin horns,” and storekeepers even sometimes locked their doors “to keep the noisy panhandlers out.” The get-ups could be truly frightening (think Lon Chaney, Sr., in some of this horror roles) and the ragamuffins occasionally turned dangerous and even violent as rival gangs of ragamuffins pulled weapons on each other. Bonfires were a common accompaniment to the revelry, too, and, one report noted, tragic results sometimes occurred when the billowing costume of a child dancing around the flames could catch fire.
Eventually, newspapers, clergy, and city and school officials railed against the footloose ragamuffins and the begging and police cracked down on the rowdy maskers. The raucous revelry clashed with the more solemn import that Thanksgiving had come to embody: the family gathering and celebration of the harvest bounty. By about 1930, the New York Times reported, “The ragamuffin is vanishing,” but “persists somewhat . . . tenaciously” in “places where the subway lines end”—such as the south end of Hudson Street on the Lower West Side, where my mother appeared to remembered seeing the “gamins . . . in their mothers’ dresses and with their fathers’ suits hanging limply on them.” The immense popularity of the Macy’s parade, which became a national event with the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street, and the rise in the observance of Halloween began to pare away at the practice of Ragamuffin Day. The dampening effect of Prohibition, 1920-33, may also have had some bearing. Alcohol consumption was an impetus to much of the revelry among the adults. A cop, who seemed to bemoan the passing of the tradition, remarked that groups of men
used to get all dressed up and their girls did, too, and they’d have prizes for the best costumes and they’d come uptown for the parade, with horns and bells. And they’d get free drinks in the saloons. But now—without any be[e]r or anything—
The policeman let his sentence trail off, as if lamenting the loss.
By 1940, the Madison Square Boys Club, which since the 1930s had campaigned against Ragamuffin Day, held its own Thanksgiving parade with over 400 children marching and carrying a banner bearing the slogan “American boys do not beg.” The last mention of a Thanksgiving Day ragamuffin parade in the Times was in 1956. (That event was in the Bronx. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge still holds a Ragamuffin Parade in late September or early October.)