“TOMORROW IS RAGAMUFFIN DAY”

“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.

oBain News Service, Publisher. Thanksgiving Maskers. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010011/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)

Ragamuffins pose for a photograph. Bain News Service, Publisher. Thanksgiving Maskers. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010011/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)

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.”

oBain News Service, Publisher. Thanksgiving Maskers. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010003/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)

Ragamuffins going door to door. Bain News Service, Publisher. Thanksgiving Maskers. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010003/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)

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:

Ragamuffins Scramble to pick up some thrown pennies. Bain News Service, Publisher. Thanksgiving Maskers scramble for pennies. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010012/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)

Ragamuffins scramble to pick up some thrown pennies. Bain News Service, Publisher. Thanksgiving Maskers scramble for pennies. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010012/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)

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.”

Bain News Service, Publisher. Thanksgiving Maskers. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010002/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)

Bain News Service, Publisher. Thanksgiving Maskers. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010002/. (Accessed November 22, 2016.)

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.

Bain News Service, Publisher. Scramble for pennies - Thanksgiving. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010007/. (Accessed November 23, 2016.)

Bain News Service, Publisher. Scramble for pennies – Thanksgiving. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2004010007/. (Accessed November 23, 2016.)

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4 thoughts on ““TOMORROW IS RAGAMUFFIN DAY”

  1. VirginiaB

    My mother was born in Brooklyn in 1922 and grew up there. As she dressed me as a ragamuffin for Halloween in the 1950s, she told me that trick or treating was done on Thanksgiving, not Halloween, when she was a girl. That would have been in the mid to late 1920s, perhaps even into the early 30s. This was in Flatbush where my grandparents owned a classic Brooklyn brownstone for about 40 years.

    Reply
  2. BillF

    I remember visiting my grandmother in the Bronx over Thanksgiving as child in the 1950s. I remember asking my parents why Halloween was at Thanksgiving in NYC. I forgot about that until I read this story.

    Reply
  3. letstalkaboutfamily

    I also remember kids dr seed like tramps coming to my aunts house on Thanksgiving. They said “Pennies for Thanksgiving” the way we did “Trick or Treat” at Halloween. That was in Queens, NY in probably about 1950.

    Reply
  4. Helen Gardner

    In the Bronx, we asked “anything for Thanksgiving” and dressed up in old clothes or as adults in hand me downs. Some kids carried around socks filled with chalk and we simply hit each other. We brought candy and coins home, and living in apartment buildings in Parkchester, we had quite a stash without going outdoors. Kept us busy until dinner was ready. This was in the 1940’s.

    Reply

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