Thanksgiving Maskers


A photograph from the Library of Congress collection in the Flickr Commons.

Thanksgiving Maskers, what the heck's that, you ask? Before Halloween became the holiday it now is in the United States, children would dress up in masks on the final Thursday in November and go door to door for treats (think: fruit!), or scramble for pennies. The tradition was known as Thanksgiving Masking.

Here are more Library of Congress images from the early 1900s which depict the now-abandoned custom.

An excerpt from a New York Times article published in 1899 after the jump, with details of the maskers' hijinks -- which included boys and men running around in women's clothing. Some of them organized into a society known as "Fantastics."


Progressive era reformers regarded child begging on Thanksgiving as immoral and thought children who engaged in it should be arrested. Why were parents not able to control their offspring? the New York Times in 1903 wanted to know. (30) The newspaper castigated parents who allowed children to demand treats or money as indecent.(31) The police tried to enforce a ban against begging. In response to complaints from the public, the clergy, school superintendents, and classroom teachers issued warnings. The New York Times in November of 1930 worried that demanding coins could teach children to become professional beggars and blackmailers and that children were annoying the public.(32) Begging, decided the paper, was a "malicious influence on the morals of children of the city. (33) Boys' clubs and other child welfare agencies organized parades and costume contests as alternative activities. As a result of these efforts, child begging on Thanksgiving finally disappeared by the 1940s.(34) The tradition went back as far as 1780, involving crossdressing men who called themselves the Fantastics and paraded on the holiday.
And here's a snip from a New York Times story from December 1, 1899 about that year's Thanksgiving festivities:


Full PDF of the article, as it appeared in print.


  1. Seems in those days, if didn’t have a hat, you weren’t fully dressed. Dirt roads, no cars- it must have been relatively quiet compared to the distant-but-perpetual roar of engines we have today.

  2. A bi-racial couple happily walking arm-in-arm down the street. What could be scarier than that in 1915 ?
    Gives me chills.

  3. A while back I was looking at a book of photos of life in tiny British Columbia mining towns circa 1900 – 1920 and was amazed at the number of photos of masquerade parties – it seemed like a favorite recreational activity.

  4. Those costumes were pretty topical–Spanish-American War, Boer War–and I wonder if anyone went as General Funston administering the “water cure?”

  5. “Mummering”, or “jannying” as it is known locally (, is still practiced to a limited, and somewhat ironic, extent in the outports of Newfoundland. This is done more often at Xmas than Thanksgiving and involves the adults (kids rarely do this these days) cross-dressing in old clothes, putting on masks and going from house to house to “get their Christmas”…meaning that they will get drinks and food at each house they visit.
    It’s basically a mobile party and an excuse to get good and drunk over the Xmas holidays, but there’s also often some live music, dancing, storytelling and recitation involved, making it a last vestige of a very old way of life in the outports.
    That being said, one of my most bizarre memories is of spending a week one night snowbound in a bumhole town in Newfoundland while a recently returned military man of questionable orientation in his mother’s dress took it in turns to attempt to molest both myself and my wife. Egad, I love living in the city.

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