Thanksgiving Maskers

Researching Thanksgiving traditions from the past, I ran across one I hadn’t heard of before. Thanksgiving maskers. I expected to read nostalgic tales of baking turkeys and family gatherings. Instead, I found an unusual celebration. In larger cities it seemed a popular custom to dress up, usually as ragamuffins, and beg for pennies and treats.

Thanksgiving maskers, circa 1910-1915. Bain News Service/Library of Congress

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Thanksgiving maskers, circa 1910-1915. Bain News Service/Library of Congress

The npr history department writes:

People — young and old — got all dressed up and staged costumed crawls through the streets. In Los Angeles, Chicago and other places around the country, newspapers ran stories of folks wearing elaborate masks and cloth veils. Thanksgiving mask balls were held in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Montesano, Wash., and points in between.

In New York City — where the tradition was especially strong —a local newspaper reported in 1911 that “fantastically garbed youngsters and their elders were on every corner of the city.”

In fact, so many people participated in masking and making merry back then that, according to a widely distributed item that appeared in the Los Angeles Times of Nov. 21, 1897, Thanksgiving was “the busiest time of the year for the manufacturers of and dealers in masks and false faces. The fantastical costume parades and the old custom of making and dressing up for amusement on Thanksgiving day keep up from year to year in many parts of the country, so that the quantity of false faces sold at this season is enormous.”


Throughout the city, people wore disguises. “There were Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sams, John Bulls, Harlequins, bandits, sailors, soldiers in khaki suits,” the New York Times observed on Dec. 1, 1899. Some masqueraders rode horses; others straddled bicycles. Everyone “was generous with pennies and nickels, and the candy stores did a land-office business.”

So many youngsters in New York City dressed as poor people, Thanksgiving Day took on a nickname: Ragamuffin Day. “Parades of ragamuffins — sometimes called ‘fantastics’ because of the costumes — can be dated at least to 1891,” historian Carmen Nigro of the New York Public Library tells NPR.

“Children would dress themselves in rags and oversized, overdone parodies of beggars (a la Charlie Chaplin’s character ‘The Tramp’),” Carmen writes on the library’s blog. “The ragamuffins would then ask neighbors and adults on the street, ‘Anything for Thanksgiving?’ The usual response would be pennies, an apple, or a piece of candy.”

You can read the full article here:


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