How Thanksgiving In New York Used To Be Celebrated

Many Years Before Macy’s Held Their Annual Thanksgiving Parade New York City Children Used To Dress In Costume And Beg For Money

A Forgotten New York Thanksgiving Tradition – Ragamuffin Day

New York City children dressed in costume for Thanksgiving 1933 photo Percy Loomis Sperr

On Bleecker Street New York City children dressed in costume for Thanksgiving 1933 photo Percy Loomis Sperr

“Please mister, a penny or a nickel for Thanksgiving?”

This request was once heard all around New York City from children dressed in outlandish costumes celebrating Thanksgiving. It came to be known as Ragamuffin Day.

Thanksgiving subway kiosk 1933

Christopher Street near subway kiosk Thanksgiving 1933

When it started exactly is unclear. It was reported in 1870 costumed men were celebrating Evacuation Day a day early on Thanksgiving, November 24. Evacuation Day commemorated the November 25 anniversary of the British forces leaving New York after the Revolutionary War. Evacuation Day was a major holiday in New York until 1888.

The men in costume who paraded about were called “the Fantasticals.” But why would they be in costume? The answer is somewhat convoluted. The costumes were not really about Thanksgiving or Evacuation Day. This was related more to Guy Fawkes Day celebrated November 5 in England. In the United States, Guy Fawkes day was celebrated with anti-Catholic sentiment, burning an effigy of the Pope. Even though the holidays are weeks apart, the proximity of Guy Fawkes Day to Thanksgiving Day and Evacuation Day is thought to be responsible for the strange combination of these distinct holidays. However the American Fantasticals did not beg for money.  

New Yorkers Create Their Own Twisted Holiday

How did begging come about? It is theorized New Yorkers then somehow further intertwined all the holidays with an old New England Thanksgiving custom.

An 1893 New York Times article explained, “In an old book descriptive of New England characters and customs one reads that on Thanksgiving eve it was the custom of the poorer people, servants and dependents to go to the houses of the rich to ask for substantials to help celebrate the coming feast day. And the richer people felt it incumbent on their dignity and hospitality not to allow any one to go away from their doors empty handed.”

New York City child dressed in Indian costume for Thanksgiving 1933 photo Percy Loomis Sperr

Bleecker Street off Van Ness Indian costume Thanksgiving 1933

Thanksgiving, costumes and begging all combined and became known as Ragamuffin Day.

In the 1880s and 1890s more and more children took to the streets masquerading as Indians, Pilgrims, Uncle Sam, Mephisto and other characters. Ragamuffin Day was deplored by some and encouraged by others.

By 1902 the city was crowded on Thanksgiving Day with costumed begging children. The New York Times described the scene “…from early morning to late evening thousands of children roamed in ragamuffin costume, blowing horns, throwing harmless missiles and playing at begging. The practice of dressing up as ragamuffins seems to be growing among the city children each Thanksgiving Day, and the parents of many seem to take an interest in the displays, judging by the great variety in fantastic costumes which the children wear.”

New York City children Hudson and Perry Street dressed in costumes with painted faces for Thanksgiving 1933

Children and even some grown men could be seen with their faces painted red, green, black and yellow. On many streets, boys paraded about blowing horns, shaking rattles and bells or hitting cymbals to add cacophony to the festivities.

In 1925 the Madison Square Boys Club held the first of what became an annual Thanksgiving Day parade to protest children begging for alms. The boys carried banners reading American Boys Don’t Beg.

New York City children dressed in costume for Thanksgiving 1933 photo Percy Loomis Sperr

St. Lukes St. New York City children dressed in costume for Thanksgiving 1933 photo: Percy Loomis Sperr

The end of Ragamuffin Day was brought about by several factors. The stock market crash in October 1929 made money tight for everyone. Through the 1930s New York City schools along with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children openly discouraged the children from Thanksgiving begging. The Boys Club offered a turkey prize to the child with the best costume at a party they held, instead of asking for alms in the street.  Finally, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia imposed a ban on panhandling, not just for adults but also children. The police were told to enforce the ban.

Hudson and Perry Streets “Ragamuffins” photo Percy Loomis Sperr

4th Street kids Thanksgiving 1933 photo Percy Loomis Sperr

 

Each year, despite some holdouts, the tradition died a little more until by the end of the decade Ragamuffin Day was no more.

The pictures seen here were all taken by Percy Loomis Sperr who fortunately captured some ragamuffins in 1933 before they faded into history.

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