Today in Tedium: New Yorkers have significant and understandable pride in their city. Like any old and diverse metropolis, however, there are divisions. Class, race, culture, and religion have long divided but the lack of available space has a way of forcing some degree of cooperation. The biggest divide among New Yorkers is geographic, intimately tied to the borough that reared you. (The Avengers played with the concept a good deal.) Some divisions are easier than others to bridge. Brooklyn and Queens tend to root for the Mets, Manhattan and the Bronx for the Yankees. And Staten Island is just there being Staten Island. But as we approach Thanksgiving there’s an opportunity to look at the borough divide through a unique lens. One that has seen local traditions elevated to national prominence or relegated to a quaint neighborhood event. Today’s Tedium is talking about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the long-held tradition it replaced. — Andrew @ Tedium
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A Ragamuffin's way: When beggars got to choose
The New York Public Library is a gem to city residents. Brooklyn has its own library system. As does Queens. These institutions offer a lot to their communities, from the obvious reference material to career services and basic internet access. They also serve as keepers for the unique memorabilia and history produced by the city and its residents.
Among old road signs, letters from historical figures, and so, so many subway tokens are the photographs that document life in NYC before the modern era. If you go back far enough and concentrate on Thanksgiving photos, you might notice something kind of strange: kids dressed as hobos by the thousand.
As one of the oldest cities in the U.S., New York has had a number of largely forgotten holidays. Evacuation Day celebrating the withdrawal of British troops from the city during the Revolutionary War was widely observed until the 19th century. (Some smaller celebrations are still held today by historical societies.) Perhaps the most infamous wasn’t really a holiday at all but more of a unique quirk to city life. Moving Day was the only day of the year, May 1st, that New Yorkers were allowed to move. And the practice seriously continued until World War II.
But one of the biggest traditions died not because of lack of interest. Instead, stuffy Manhattanites couldn’t be bothered to put up with the dirty ragamuffins from the other boroughs.
Ragamuffin Day, or Ragamuffin Parades, started in the 1870s and quickly became popular alongside the then relatively new American holiday of Thanksgiving. Though observed irregularly by Americans since the nation’s founding, Thanksgiving was officially declared a federal holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
While many celebrations typical of Thanksgiving were initially observed, New York’s Thanksgiving took on its own form. Children and adults began dressing in fanciful masks and wandered around the city. Eventually, this transformed into a proto-Halloween celebration with participants, mostly children, dressing up as hobos and asking strangers for candy, loose change, or other gifts. Costumes were described as “dressing in old clothes, many sizes too large, painting their faces or putting on masks”.
While this type of activity is not new to modern Americans, it was very atypical at the time and largely confined to NYC. As a reverend told the New York Tribune in 1909, “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.”
The preacher seemed resigned to the Thanksgiving tradition, admitting it was “here to stay,” but reaction from some of the city’s established institutions were less accepting. Coverage from The New York Times is tinged with backhanded annoyance over the tradition. One 1930 headline reads, “Parading Thanksgiving Ragamuffins Scarce, Except Out Where City Subway Lines End.” So which is it? Were they scarce or not? But anyone that lives in NYC immediately gets the implication in the headline. They mean it was only scarce in Manhattan, aka the only place that mattered. (Almost no trains end service in Manhattan with a couple of exceptions, like the M train that terminates at 96th Street.)
Slights and admonition from the city’s paper of record are unfortunately not unusual throughout history. The Times has a long history of fairly conservative political views, especially when to come to city laws. (They were supporters of a dancing ban that remained a city law until the 21st century.) But the end of Ragamuffin parades can ultimately be traced back to one man and a confluence of events that helped consolidate traditions while opening space for new ones.
A parade is a parade
The Times headline earlier should be a clue to why the backlash to Ragamuffin parades started after almost 60 years of observance. The Great Depression hit global economies but as the home to Wall Street, New York was probably hit harder than most. Organized and socially acceptable “begging” were now seen as emblematic of a larger problem that led to the Depression.
However, the tradition seemed to bother William J. O’Shea, New York’s superintendent of schools at the time, the most. He began sending word to principals and school administrators that the practice should be discouraged, stating “modernity is incompatible with the custom of children to masquerade and annoy adults on Thanksgiving day”.
By the 1930 Times article, participation was noticeably down with one police officer quoted in the article openly lamenting a lost tradition, “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.”
Within the decade, the criticism went from backhanded to openly confrontational with headlines like “Ragamuffins Frowned Upon”. Not much subtlety there.
Going into the patriotic vigor around World War II, social groups had joined the effort promoting the admittedly sexist slogan, “Boys don’t beg!” Anti-ragamuffin organizers had turned to Thanksgiving parades as a way to quash the hordes of begging children with varying degrees of success.
The end of the ragamuffins in popular NYC lore was coming to an end, in large part because a department store on 34th street.
The number of people that watched the 2018 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade on TV. Last year’s broadcast was watched by more people the Grammys.
The origins of something most New Yorkers lament … until they have kids
For the first few years of Macy’s annual parade, it actually wasn’t necessarily intended to celebrate Thanksgiving. Instead, it was a Christmas parade.
Macy’s contends that the original parade was held “after employees ask the company to have a parade on Thanksgiving that’ll be all about giving thanks and the coming of Christmas.” That the parade also drew attention to the store during the most profitable time of the year was just a happy coincide to be sure.
Professionally produced advertisements for the original, “organic” event don’t yet identify it as a Thanksgiving parade. Also, no balloons.
The genesis of Macy’s hallmark parade feature actually has an interesting backstory. The original parades including marching employees and large circus animals. By 1927, the city wisely banned live exotic animals on streets. So the company had to get creative and made the logical choice to entrust the task to a Guatemalan-born, German raised puppeteer.
Tony Sarg is known as a master puppeteer and widely considered the “father of modern puppetry”. In the late 1920s, his reputation was already formidable enough to attract Macy’s attention. The first helium-filled parade balloon created for the Macy’s parade would start the trend of using popular characters. The silent-era cartoon icon Felix the Cat, was the first large Macy’s balloon. (Previously, balloons had accompanied the parade when carried by store employees waving them on sticks.) With no plan for the helium balloon after the parade, organizers simply let it float off.
This would become yet another NYC Thanksgiving tradition, and Macy’s marketing gimmick, as the store released parade balloons for six years—until the practice was banned due to the increasing prevalence of airplanes in the sky. One brave (stupid?) pilot even attempted to down a parade balloon with their plane’s propeller. Fortunately, they survived the ordeal. The company also put a bounty on released balloons, offering cash prizes to anyone that returned them. This lead to more than a few heated moments and a few more hilarious Times headlines like, “Flying Blue Hippo Hunted at Sea”.
Though already popular with city residents, the parade became a national tradition following the 1947 release of the Christmas movie A Miracle on 34th Street, which opens with the Macy’s parade as a significant plot device. As the movie became a Christmas classic, the parade became a Thanksgiving tradition.
Over time, the parade took the form we recognize today. Regular characters’ balloons were slowly added over the years. Mickey Mouse joined in 1934 and Snoopy became a mainstay in 1968. Things haven’t always gone according to plan, of course. In 1986, a balloon of Superman had its arm ripped off after being caught on a tree. Even for the 2019 edition, officials are warning that high winds could potentially ground parade balloons. Come rain or shine, it’s likely the route running to Herald Square will be packed with revelers enjoying one of America’s most wholesome marketing gimmicks.
New Yorkers that have been to the Macy’s parade as adults usually have one thing in common: they have kids. But they also say it’s a lot of fun. The winter in late November is anything but fun but spectacles often involve enduring a few hardships, including crowds, cost and weather.
In the case of the Macy’s parade, the hardships include a tough reality. Manhattan’s priorities take precedence over the other four boroughs. Everyone in the city knows this is true but finding specific, concrete examples can be tough. It’s a little like trying to explain why you find a person annoying. There may not just be one thing or it can be a little hard to put into words. But the history behind the Macy’s parade puts this favoritism in focus. Out with the ragamuffins and in with corporate interests!
Of course, many traditions are hard to stamp out completely. Deep in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, children have been dressing up and marching in their very own Ragamuffin Parade since 1956. To honor the tradition, the city officially renamed Third Avenue as “Ragamuffin Way”. However, they hold the parade in early October—which makes sense, because the Ragamuffin phenomenon is often compared to modern-day trick-or-treating.
Really, can you compete with Mickey Mouse and Snoopy? It’s probably best not to try.
Thanks again to Andrew for another awesome piece. Be sure to check out his site Crimes in Progress if you haven’t.