Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Urban Environmentalist NYC: Thanksgiving History Revealed

November 26th, 2008 · 4 Comments

(Thanksgiving in 1911)

From at least the early part of the twentieth century until about the early 1960’s, Brooklyn children celebrated a curious custom on Thanksgiving morning. While Mom was cooking the turkey, kids would put on old, over-size, ragged clothes—usually belonging to one of their parents— and go door to door with small hands outstretched begging for pennies, apples or candy chanting “Anything for Thanksgiving?” The kids sometimes used burnt cork on their faces or wore masks to make themselves look more like ragamuffins while begging for change (see 1911 Thanksgiving photo, “Scrambling for Pennies,” in the G.C. Bain collection). The tradition may have had European roots—and Brooklyn, with a large European immigrant population, became a major borough for a custom that seemed largely limited to New York City neighborhoods and mostly unknown outside of the city. In Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” for instance, Francie participates in the Thanksgiving tradition in Williamsburg, donning a mask.

In the early days of the tradition, “Ragamuffin” parades were held and children dressed in more elaborate costumes as well as the more tattered ones. The parades became a chance for the poorer immigrants to march through the street in extravagant costumes. More organized parades were established in 1923 by a director of the Madison Square Boys Club for the sole purpose of discouraging begging on the holiday among the youth of the city. An item in the New York Times of November 25, 1938 notes that eight year old Frank Manino came dressed as the mayor (“Fiorello”) and others impersonated John L. Lewis and Thomas E. Dewey, with the piece de resistance was “Ferdinand the Bull.” The first prize of a 15 lb. turkey went to an 11 year old boy dressed as a scarecrow.

The parade lives on in Bay Ridge’s annual Ragamuffin Parade, now held in late September or early October. Indeed, the tradition of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade may hark back to the European tradition of ragamuffin parades. The custom died out after trick-or-treating became more popular after World War II, though it still existed into the 1960’s in some neighborhoods. An attached photo shows the author (Ruth Edebohls) circa1947 in her “Ragamuffin Bride” outfit on Thanksgiving Day, standing on the stoop of her parent’s delicatessen on the corner of 18th Street & 7th Avenue (now part of the Prospect Expressway).

Wishing everyone a Happy – and Hopeful – Thanksgiving!

(Thanksgiving, 1947)

(Ruth Edebohls is the Coordinator of Urban Tours at the Center for the Urban Environment. To learn more about the Center visit us at www.thecue.org.)

Tags: Urban Environmentalist

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jane Alcorn // Sep 10, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    My parents, while growing up on Staten Island in the 1920s-1930s, participated in this “Anything for Thanksgiving” tradition. I had never heard of it until I asked them what they did for Halloween, and they told me it was for Thanksgiving that they dressed up and traipsed through their respective neighborhoods!

  • 2 Eileen // Nov 23, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    I remember doing this !! I was 4 yrs. old in 1952 and lived in Bay Ridge!!

  • 3 billy37 // Nov 23, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    I never celebrated Thanksgiving as a kid (I wasn’t born in the U.S.) but now I think it’s a truly nice holiday. I never really knew what it was all about though. I read this and it’s really quite cool to know a bit more about Thanksgivings origins. Here’s what I read.

  • 4 MARY F. CAPUTO // Nov 25, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    My mother, born in 1905, grew up in Hollis, Queens. She had begged on Thanksgiving and one year actually wanted me to do the same in approx 1956 at the age of 9. I wasn’t too keen on this idea, considering that no one else was doing it! I loved dressing up for Halloween so I think she wanted me to have another opportunity! After telling my husband and grown children about this tradition I had to go online and find proof for them. I was very happy to see so much information about this.