Top of page

Unmasking a Thanksgiving Tradition Through Photos and Newspapers

Share this post:

This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence.

Often, when we think of Thanksgiving, we think of traditions — customs passed down from generation to generation, grandparent or parent to child. Traditions seem everlasting, but primary sources can show how Thanksgiving traditions change over time. Take, for instance, the tradition of the Thanksgiving Maskers in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Photos can be a powerful visual entry point to new learning. Share one or more Thanksgiving Masker photos with students, telling them they will be exploring a century-old New York Thanksgiving tradition. Student can analyze the photo using the Primary Source Analysis Tool.  Encourage students to reflect and develop questions based on the photo and its connection to Thanksgiving, in addition to making observations.

Thanksgiving. Bain News Service, 1910
Thanksgiving. Bain News Service, 1910

Thanksgiving Maskers. Bain News Service, 1910
Thanksgiving Maskers. Bain News Service, 1910

Searching Chronicling America for “Thanksgiving Maskers,” a term used as a description for the photos, will yield a story about the tradition of children in New York to parade through the street in costume and masked or painted faces. When reading, reflect back on the questions from the photo analysis. What has been answered? What other interesting information comes from the newspaper article?

"Thanksgiving Maskers," The river press., November 29, 1911
“Thanksgiving Maskers,” The river press., November 29, 1911

Encourage students to look for words or phrases in the historic newspaper articles that may be used for additional searches. In the article “Thanksgiving Maskers,” for example, students may notice the term “ragamuffin.” Searching “Thanksgiving ragamuffin” can return more articles on the tradition. Those articles will produce even more search phrases including “Thanksgiving fantasticals” and “Thanksgiving mummers.” Note: Some search results contain articles about violent acts or injuries that take place during these parades and may be considered graphic, especially for young readers.

The articles reveal more layers of the tradition. One article details that it was common for boys to dress as girls and girls as boys, asking adults on the street for money, candy, or fruit. Another article shares that not reciprocating may have resulted in a child blowing a horn in your ear or hitting you with a flour-filled sack. Editorials and other articles present the tradition as disruptive rather than festive. Reports have children numbering in the thousands with varying accounts of the origin of the tradition.

As students continue to expand their understanding of the New York City tradition, they will likely answer many more of their original questions from the photo analysis, but will also generate more questions along the way. The questions posed can help determine how students interact with the information in the articles.

  • How did the tradition begin?
  • What activities made up the tradition? Who participated?
  • How did others react to the tradition? What words and phrases within the article suggest this?
  • What did other people across the country know about the New York City tradition at the time?

It may be difficult to answer all of the questions that students develop when analyzing primary sources, but the careful analysis that comes from the search for those answers can lead to a deep understanding of this Thanksgiving tradition from long ago.


Comments (2)

  1. Love this! Very interesting. Was this done before Halloween?

  2. Great question Arline! This was a wondering of mine too. In fact, searches in Chronicling America show that the Halloween traditions are evident during this same time in other cities.
    In discussion boards outside of the Library of Congress, I have read that the areas of New York that would celebrate in this way on Thanksgiving would not Trick-or-Treat on Halloween.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *