Thanksgiving has been an unofficial tradition in the US since settlers first came here, an unofficial holiday since 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of giving thanks in the midst of the Civil War, and an official one beginning in 1942. Many different traditions have sprung up around this holiday, but have you heard of ragamuffins?
No, it is not a food found on Thanksgiving tables. It was the name given to children who dressed up in costume and went from house to house begging. In a 1933 article about Thanksgiving, the New York Times writes “two features have become institutions unique to New York: they are the Macy parade and the groups of ragamuffins begging largesse from the homes and passersby.”
The practice seems isolated to New York City, taking place from at least the turn of the 20th century through the 1950s. The tradition seems to have arrived in the US with increased European immigration, and the term is most likely taken for the word given to poorly clothed, often dirty children, indicating that the practice—and the immigrant class who took part—were not looked kindly upon by the city’s upper class. The picture series from the New York Public Library all date to 1933 and are all located around Bleecker, Hudson, and Christopher Streets, parts of the immigrant areas of the Village. To learn more about the neigborhood’s immigrant history, check out GVSHP’s report on Italians of the South Village.
A New York Times article from 1902 states “The ancient custom of masquerading on the part of the boys and girls was more in evidence than for many years past. The queerest looking specimens of ragamuffins waylaid the pedestrian in droves, and many thousands of pennies found their way into the hands of the little nondescripts.”
But if the practice was looked down upon by the upper class, it was certainly a joy to those children who took part. This site is chock full of fond memories from those who took part in the tradition in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. And it serves as a great reminder that Thanksgiving is a rare holiday where new traditions are just as important as old ones.