Waverly Place; Sheridan Square; Columbus Circle., Thanksgiving ragamuffins, No.58-60., NYPL Digital Gallery
When searching for Thanksgiving images in our Digital Gallery, you might be surprised to find a set of about 20 images of Thanksgiving "ragamuffins." Who are these young beggars and what do they have to do with Thanksgiving?
Before Halloween was the holiday known for dressing up in costume and begging for candy (this practice did not become common until the 1940's and 50's), children in NYC often participated in what was called Ragamuffin Day. On Ragamuffin Day - which was Thanksgiving Day - children would dress themselves in rags and oversized, overdone parodies of beggars (a la Charlie Chaplin's character "The Tramp"). The ragamuffins would then ask neighbors and adults on the street, "Anything for Thanksgiving?" The usual response would be pennies, an apple, or a piece of candy.
The New York Tribune ran an article on November 21, 1909 which dated the tradition 40 years back to about 1870. Reverend James M. Farrar said, "Those of you who have always lived in New York do not think of this Thanksgiving game of ragamuffin as a strange custom, but the strangers coming to our city are greatly surprised, and ask what it means." Farrar thought that the tradition of "dressing in old clothes, many sizes too large, painting their faces or putting on masks" was "here to stay."
Manhattan: Bleecker Street - Perry Street., Thanksgiving ragamuffins, No.16-18., NYPL Digital Gallery
However, by 1930, articles were appearing in The New York Times calling for the end of the practice. William J. O'Shea, Superintendent of schools at the time, sent a circular to the district superintendents and principals which stated that "modernity is incompatible with the custom of children to masquerade and annoy adults on Thanksgiving day." Shea also stated, "many citizens complain that on Thanksgiving Day they are annoyed by children dressed as ragamuffins, who beg for money and gifts."
O'Shea's plea to end the tradition must have carried some gravitas because that year The New York Times reported that "Parading Thanksgiving Ragamuffins Scarce, Except Out Where City's Subway Lines End." A Times Square policeman interviewed in the article stated, "all I've seen is just about six kids dressed up like we used to dress in the old days. Things ain't the way they used to be." The article also seems to lament the loss of the "splashes of color" and stated, "instead of the usual droves of hilarious youngsters in false faces and outlandish garb... one encountered only one or two every half hour. The ragamuffin is vanishing."
The Ragamuffin tradition was much more difficult to quash in the outer boroughs. The Times reported that "in Flatbush, the Bronx, Greenpoint, and other places where the subway lines end, the ragamuffin tradition persists somewhat more tenaciously."
In 1936, The New York Times' only mention of the ragamuffins is to state:
"Ragamuffins Frowned Upon: Despite the endeavors of social agencies to discourage begging by children, it is likely that the customary Thanksgiving ragamuffins, wearing discarded apparel of their elders, with masks and painted faces, will ask passers-by, 'anything for Thanksgiving?'"
The tradition was definitely waning through official statements of disapproval.
In 1937, organizations such as the Madison Square Boys Club were reported as having Thanksgiving parades as an effort "to discourage the Thanksgiving ragamuffins." By 1940, that parade had grown in size to over 400 children and sported the slogan "American boys do not beg." Though the parading boys still dressed in costume as ragamuffins, many donned costumes of other things and people - such as alarm clocks and Michelangelo.
Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, NYPL Digital GalleryThe Ragamuffin parade continued to grow and annual mentions of it appear in The New York Times. In 1943, there is a mention of a 25 year-old man who was arrested while "attired in an ill-fitting assortment of women's clothing over khaki Army trousers peeping from under a drab gray dress." His wife had to explain to the magistrate that he was dressed for a Thanksgiving Ragamuffin party.
The last mention of the Thanksgiving Ragamuffin parades - as one had appeared in the Bronx as well - is in 1956. At some point the Ragamuffin parade was ceased and it had been overshadowed by the larger, balloon-oriented, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that gained nation-wide populatrity after the success of the film Miracle on 34th Street. Ragamuffin traditions were ceded to the rise Halloween which fostered the "begging" of candy again through trick-or-treating and brought costuming to a whole new level. Hopefully, no official social agencies will try and squash this costumed holiday, but I imagine that if they did, they would receive greater resistance.