“New York children will appear in fantastic garb. Will beg on the street. Pedestrians who do not give will be swatted with stockings full of flour and missiles of all kinds.”
So wrote the Logansport Reporter (including the bold headline) on November 25, 1908 – the day before Thanksgiving.
The article – understandably puzzling to the modern reader – is referring to an old New York City tradition that many have forgotten: Thanksgiving Masking, also known as “Ragamuffin Day.”
On Thanksgiving Day, children all over the city would don costumes of all sorts – masks and hats were worn, and many put on old baggy clothes from their parents or even the clothing of their opposite-gendered sibling.The children would roam around the city with their friends, pestering strangers with the inquiry:
“Anything for Thanksgiving?”
Pennies were traditionally distributed upon this request, and as mentioned in the Logansport Reporter article, “the man who fails to provide himself with a plentiful supply of pennies and nickels with which to placate the beggars, before venturing on the streets, is likely to fare ill at the hands of the little angels.”When their begging was declined, Ragamuffins rarely retaliated with anything other than good-natured mischief, however.
Some even received candy instead of pennies, making this tradition nearly indistinguishable from trick-or-treating. But Halloween wasn’t celebrated in this way until after the 1940’s, coincidentally when Ragamuffin activity on Thanksgiving was all but gone.
Fortunately, most adults gladly obliged the begging by distributing a few pennies. Some even seem to have enjoyed throwing them up for grabs and watching the children scramble:Although the tradition spread throughout the United States, it was strongest at its original location – The Big Apple. The explanation of the tradition in the Logansport Reporter indicates that Ragamuffins were quite unfamiliar, at least to folks from the Midwest:
“People from out of town who visit New York on Thanksgiving Day look in astonishment at the ragamuffins parading the street and say, ‘What a strange custom. We don’t have this at home.’ No more do they. The Thanksgiving Ragamuffin is New York all through.”The origins of the practice are still unclear – the tradition dates back to at least 1891 and seems to have peaked in the first decades of the twentieth century.
There was eventually an adult backlash against Thanksgiving Masking – many thought the gangs of kids were getting too rowdy, and others thought to beg and dress up in tramp-like outfits was a shameful practice.
While some pockets of the New York City community still participated, by mid-century, Halloween had taken over as the primary mischief, costume and candy/pennies celebration.
Do you have any Ragamuffin history in your family? If you remember any Ragamuffin activity or have ancestors that participated, share your story in the comments! We’d love to hear from you.
More great photographs of New York Ragamuffins can be found in the New York Public Library Digital Collections.