Like most holidays, Thanksgiving experienced growing pains to become the event we know today. George Washington proclaimed Tuesday, November 26 as the day of National Thanksgiving for 1789. Originally, it was a mid-week post-harvest church “Lecture Day” in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November in 1863. In 1941 it became the fourth Thursday. But it wasn’t always a purely Hallmark-friendly holiday. Dating at least as far back as 1870, Thanksgiving Day maskers marauded through the streets calling out, “Anything For Thanksgiving?” Much like today’s trick-or-treaters, kids went door-to-door collecting candy, pennies or fruit.
By most accounts the tradition of Thanksgiving Day Maskers started in New York and surrounding boroughs. But stories can be found in newspapers across country. The photos posted here come from the Library of Congress and The New York Public Library.
The Freelance, December 2, 1911:
Thanksgiving Day Maskers: Many Children and Some Grown-ups Parade in Costume by Wilton Markham
“In addition to eating turkey and incidentally being grateful for past mercies, New York has a Thanksgiving day custom that is observed in few if any other communities in America. It is a maskers parade.
…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 tat suit their fancy; dress in all sorts of costumes, that of the ragamuffin having the preference. They black their faces, parade, blow horns, ride sorry horses, prance astride broomsticks and generally enjoy them selves to the limit of their temporary liberty.
They have no limit set on their hilarity short of the actual commission of crime.”
The following account is from the New York Times, December 1, 1899:
“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, and soldiers in khaki suits, Deweys , and Columbines that 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 burned 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.”
Los Angeles Times, November 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.”
The Freelance, December 2, 1911:
“Above all, however, it is a day of freedom for the children. They are out as gamins and are permitted to play at begging in the streets and at houses. Horns and rattles are worked overtime. The throwing of confetti and even flour on pedestrians is an allowable pastime. At some of the open squares, cakewalks are given by the children in the presence of thousands and usually with a big cake presented by a baker in the neighborhood as a prize. Wearing masks or with their faces stained, the youngsters roam through the streets by thousands.”
The tradition evolved over time. They eventually paved the way to Thaksgiving Day parades, including the first Macy’s Day Parade in 1924. The impulse of Thanksgiving Day maskers evolved into the costumed Halloween Trick-or-Treaters we know today. A few Ragamuffin Parades are still held in outer boroughs of New York City and New Jersey.
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