Thanksgiving Ragamuffins: The tradition.
You might be puzzled this Thursday if you heard a knock on your door, and were posed this question by a gaggle of children dressed in creepy masks and ragged clothes.
But in 19th century America, the refrain "anything for Thanksgiving?" was far more recognizable than the "trick or treat" we associate with costumes and candies today. In fact, before the 1940's, Thanksgiving was the day scores of children roamed the streets in bizarre outfits, seeking candy and mischief.
This long-forgotten custom began at least by the 1870's in New York City, and was common in many urban areas throughout the remainder of the 19th century. A contemporary description of the tradition, via a 1908 issue of the Logansport Reporter found in our U.S. Newspaper Archives explains that "umpty-thousand little children band themselves into a fantastically arrayed army of beggars and celebrate Thanksgiving by asking alms from adult pedestrians."
Ragamuffins chase after pennies tossed into the air by adults.
Just like they now do on Halloween, youngsters used the opportunity to dress in many different types of costumes. Most commonly they dressed as vagrants, but other costumes became popular as well -- by 1899, the New York Times reported that "Thanksgiving masquerading has never been more universal," with "Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sames, John Bulls, Harlequins, bandits and sailors" parading around the streets. Back then, Thanksgiving was the major season for candy stores and mask makers.
Like Halloween, the youth that roamed the streets on Thanksgiving were prone to a great deal of mischief, especially if you didn't meet their demands by giving them either pennies, apples or candy. According to the Logansport Reporter, those who couldn't pay up were subject to getting whacked over the head with a flour sack or getting loud party-horns blown into their faces.
Frugal adults weren't the only ones terrorized by Thanksgiving Ragamuffins. The costumes were evidently scary - so scary that they allegedly gave a young girl an incurable case of the hiccups. We found this news-wire tidbit published in over a dozen papers in our newspaper archives between January and April of 1914:
We were unfortunately unable to confirm that young Ms. Hilda Cain ever stopped hiccoughing. Curse those horrible Thanksgiving Ragamuffins!
Predictably, many adults did not look favorably on this tradition, especially for those of upper-class families who thought their children were far too good to be begging. And of course, it didn't help that a common shortcut for children who couldn't find a better costume was to swap clothes with siblings of the opposite sex, resulting in a decent amount of cross-dressing:
Adults increasingly grew tired of this tomfoolery occurring on the same day of national Thanksgiving - a very serious and sometimes solemn holiday in the 19th and first half of the 20th century and by the 1930's, the tradition was on its way out.
As we can see here in this clipping from the Daily Ardmoreite in November of 1932, respectable adults disapproved of the tradition on multiple levels:
If the children are humored in their panhandling for one day, some can't understand why it shouldn't be tolerated all the time.
As the Thanksgiving Day Parade became the more recognized Thanksgiving tradition and celebration, the Ragamuffins slowly receded from the nation's memory. Though they disappeared from wealthier areas of cities close to time the above article was published, poorer areas saw Ragamuffins slightly longer.
The tradition didn't fully die, however - Halloween soon became the day designated for strange costumes, candy collection and mischief. Some neighborhoods held Ragamuffin parades as late as 1967, but by the 1940's, it was more common to see children in costume on Halloween.
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