They Did That: The Lost Custom of Thanksgiving Maskers

We’ve all got our Thanksgiving customs: food and games, specialty drinks and time with family. They get built over time, and seem like they’ll always be with us. But some traditions get lost over generations, as America culture grows and blends, and our cities adapt and change.

Thanksgiving masking is one of those traditions, prominent in the early-1900’s, particularly in New York City, that has been seemingly lost to time. But thankfully, those enterprising young photographers of early America were able to capture its spirit. For them, and all the history they recorded through their lenses, we at Historic Pictoric are eternally grateful.

Masking was a strange, jubilant custom, that seemed to more closely resembled Halloween more than our modern Thanksgiving Day. As NPR reported recently from their research into the subject:

In New York City — where the tradition was especially strong — a local newspaper reported in 1911 that “fantastically garbed youngsters and their elders were on every corner of the city.”

Thousands of folks ran rampant, one syndicated column noted. “Horns and rattles are worked overtime. The throwing of confetti and even flour on pedestrians is an allowable pastime.”

It must have been like a strange American dream.

Children are said to have dressed in loose clothing, as beggars, prowling merrily around the city streets, asking neighbors, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” The young ‘ragamuffins,’ as they became known, would receive small gifts from the adults, such as pennies, apples, or, if they were lucky, pieces of candy.

The tradition continued in popularity for the first half of the 20th century, until pressure from schools and New York’s upper echelons – who suggested children begging in the streets was not a proper way to behave – eventually phased the practice out, around the 1950s.

One tradition that helped ease the phase-out of the maskers’ Thanksgiving custom can be seen each year, like clockwork, on television sets throughout the country: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

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