Maybe some of you saw last week’s excellent post “When Thanksgiving was Weird” on NPR’s protojournalist feature. I had the blog below all ready to go for the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, but felt weird posting it so soon after NPR’s story. A few days out and I’m completely over it and even added a little more meat to this one. So, enjoy the Thanksgiving bonus!


There’s always more to say about Thanksgiving ragamuffins

I was recently browsing the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress‘ digital photo collections for a vintage picture of Thanksgiving to post. Rather than a plethora of dinner scenes like I expected, a search for “Thanksgiving” yielded some very odd results: maskers and ragamuffins.

Ummmmm. What. Is. Going. On. Here.


Yep, those are little kids dressed as hobos and crones. And maybe caricatures of industrialists?


A quick search turned up this article (quoted below) by Greg Young of the excellent podcast Bowery Boys: New York City History.

“[A]n old custom from over a hundred years ago, especially popular among poor New York City children, might scare the stuffing out of a Thanksgiving dinner party today. Imagine opening your home to invited guests, only to find a group of children in wretched and unsettling disguises, disfigured masks and poverty-inspired costumes, knocking at your door and begging for sweets.

Thanksgiving ‘masking’, as it was often called, stemmed from a satirical perversion of destitution and the ancient tradition of mumming, where men in costumes floated from door to door, asking for food and money, often in exchange for music. In the 19th century, makeshift Thanksgiving parades — fantasticals — featured New Yorkers marching through the street in garish costume, most likely inspired by Guy Fawkes Day. By the late 19th century, these had morphed into a day for children to take to the street in ragamuffin garb, going from door to door, begging for fruit, candy and even pennies.”


“This play of masking is deeply rooted in the New York child,” said Appleton’s magazine a few years later, in 1909. “All toy shops carry a line of hideous and terrifying false faces or ‘dough faces’ as they are termed on the East Side.”

Dressing in girl’s clothing — perhaps the most accessible ‘costume’ for many boys — was among the most popular options. According to Appleton’s, boys “tog themselves out in worn-out finery of their sisters” and spent their afternoon “gamboling in awkward mimicry of their sisters to the casual street piano.”

The key was to look as disheveled and homely as possible, an almost perverse custom given the poverty in many sectors of New York at this time. A 1910 book called Little Talks For Little People spelled out the dress code: “Old shoes and clouted upon your feet, and old garments upon you. Clouted means patched.””


The tradition seems to have largely been subsumed into Halloween celebrations by the time World War II ended. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924 and it’s possible this also had something to do with the changing of the local tradition. Referencing a broken link, Gothamist cites a scholarly article that would have us believe that the Macy’s Parade is an extension of the immigration tradition that led to masking in the first place! Meta!

Here’s a digitized (and colorized) home movie of some ragamuffins doing their thing.

How much of this tradition would be remembered without the photos archived by the NYPL and Library of Congress? In the comments of the recent post on Thanksgiving masking by NPR several readers say they recall doing this as children, but only one has posted his own photo of himself in ragamuffin regalia. In researching this post, it is clear that the photos from these two sources are our primary pictorial sources.

This says something about not only the importance of photographing your traditions, but also the necessity of writing contextual information about them. In Buzzfeed style listicles of “Creepy Halloween costumes of the past,” outfits that now look like Thanksgiving masks (to me at least) are lumped in with Halloween. Maybe there are more Thanksgiving masker pictures out there, but they are simply misidentified, even within family collections?

One way to keep contextual information with photos, even digital photos, is to make use of metadata. This embeds information within the image file, and keeps it together — it’s the digital equivalent of writing on the back of a printed photo!

More on this later. In the meantime, don’t forget to document your own traditions! You never know what we do now that will be totally bizarre to future generations!