The Thanksgiving ragamuffins of old New York

It’s one of the strangest holiday traditions in late 19th and early 20th century New York City.


On Thanksgiving day, kids (and often adults as well) used to dress up in costume (cowboys, pirates, and princesses were big) or in their most threadbare clothes and go door to door in the neighborhood, asking, anything for Thanksgiving?

How the tradition started isn’t all that clear. Though New Yorkers had been celebrating Thanksgiving as an official holiday since 1817, it was only nationalized in 1864.


Somehow, a day to feast on turkey (and later watch football games) became associated with a practice that was part Mardi Gras, part modern-day Halloween.

These ragamuffins, as the kids were called, charmed (and sometimes irritated) New Yorkers; they begged for nickels and pennies and played jokes.


In some areas, these “masqueraders” even won prizes for the best getup.

“In the old days,” a policeman recalled in a New York Times article from 1930, “the Hudson Dusters, and the Rangers and the Blue Shirts used to get all dressed up and their girls did, too, and they’d have prizes for the best costume and they’d come uptown for the parade, with horns and bells. And they’d get free drinks in the saloons.”


Of course, this old-school tradition couldn’t last. In the 1930s, the schools superintendent discouraged the tradition. Soon, only kids who lived in neighborhoods where the “subway lines end,” as the Times put it, continued to dress up, beg, and play pranks.


As another policeman the Times spoke to in 1947 remarked, “I remember the fun we had when we used to go out all dressed up for Thanksgiving and the people dropped red pennies out the window.” (Red because they were heated on the stove, intended to burn little kid hands.)

“But they don’t have any real fun like that anymore,” he added.

[Photos: LOC; Brooklyn Daily Eagle; NYPL Digital Collection; NYPL Digital Collection; LOC]

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9 Responses to “The Thanksgiving ragamuffins of old New York”

  1. Tom Hakala Says:

    From age 7 to age 14 (in the late 50s and early 60s) I lived in the City Line section of Brooklyn. This was a neighborhood ‘where the Subway ended.’ Well, actually it was the neighborhood where the Fulton Street El originally ended at Liberty Avenue and 101st Avenue (Grant Avenue Station), until it was extended to Lefferts Boulevard after WW I. The Eight Avenue Subway gradually replaced the Fulton Street El and the last remaining section of the Fulton Street El, between Broadway East New York and Grant Avenue in City Line, was torn down in about 1957. After that, the Subway ended at the new Grant Avenue Subway stop and the Eighth Avenue Subway trains went (and still do) up onto the remaining section of the El (still extant) that extends from Grant Avenue to Lefferts Boulevard. Anyway, after that long winded intro, Halloween was one of the best holidays when I was a kid. We all dressed up, mostly as ‘bums,’ put on black face (or red or white face), had chalk and sacket fights (a sacket is an old stocking filled with flour and crushed up colored sidewalk chalk that you hit other kids with), played tricks, and ‘trick or treated’ until we dropped – or had to go home for dinner. During those years, both my parents and other adults often remarked to me that (their words) ‘there also used to be trick or treating at Thanksgiving but none of the kids seem to do it anymore.’ I was very interested in this concept and always hoped the custom would somehow revive. Now I finally know the true story. Thanks for this posting.

    -Tom Hakala

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Tom, I wonder how begging for pennies and candy got started as a Thanksgiving tradition in the first place. I’ve not found any source that has been able to answer that.

  3. Jon Phillips Says:

    This tradition originated I believe in the 3rd Ward of Manhattan during the regime of Big and Little Tim Sullivan. Tammany would regularly dispense buckets of coal (for the poor to be able to heat their homes), and turkeys, for Thanksgiving. There was a lot of Dickens influence in all this. Wards of the State and orphaned news boys were the object of much sentimentality and John George Brown, who specialized in treacle portraiture, especially of urchins and newsboys, was one of the most sought after artists in America and England.

    Bohos and newsboys were both rife in the 3rd Ward, where highly stylized street fashion wen hand in glove with deprivation. NY has always been style first. Halloween took over the Thanksgiving tradition of trick or treating. Much of the begging had to do with getting coal, without which there was no heat. – Heating season coincides more or less with Thanksgiving.

    The heating season in New York has always been rife with anxiety, but, in the early 20th Century, especially with the disruptions that radiated outward from the Great War in Europe, coal and heat where paramount on all American minds in northern cities. New York was especially hard hit- at the same times that rents were skyrocketing and availability was scarce as WWI virtually halted all significant housing as the same support industries and trades focused on building battle ships and arms.

  4. Jon Phillips Says:
    This will provide you with an indication of the Victorian Thanksgiving circa 1891.

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks for this Jon, very interesting. The article is a great read too.

  6. Marianne A Says:

    My mother, who was born in the Bronx in the wilds of Throggs Neck in the 1920s, remembered this tradition very well. Halloween was exclusively for playing pranks; Thanksgiving was when you went door-to-door asking for treats from your neighbors.

  7. Kellye Says:

    Sounds very similar to Mummering.

  8. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, the Mummers parade is another bizarre tradition, from Philadelphia.

  9. Leslie Birdwell Shortlidge Says:

    This tradition is in the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The children, who are charged with the shopping as part of their chores, go from store to store and beg. The shopkeepers give them broken candy or odd bits of things that can’t be sold. The children see it as their due for giving their trade to to shopkeepers all year.

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