Daniel Krall
Daniel Krall

A Look Back at When Thanksgiving Was Basically Halloween

Daniel Krall
Daniel Krall

Masked children roaming door-to-door, begging for treats. Well-lubricated adults dressing up for costume parties. Sounds like a normal Halloween—except it wasn’t. Less than a century ago, this was Thanksgiving. It seems as bizarre as decking the halls on the Fourth of July, but it’s true: For decades before World War II, Turkey Day was the day for putting on false faces.

How did Thanksgiving take such a detour? According to the 1873 book Old New England Traits, in the early 19th century, poorer Massachusetts residents started knocking on doors on the holiday’s eve, begging, “Something for Thanksgiving?” As a (bad) joke, well-to-do children began dressing in tattered clothes and doing the same.

The costume idea caught on. When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863, towns from Juneau, Alaska, to Tampa, Florida, began marking the date with masquerade balls. The Tombstone Prospector took note of 1890 costume prize-winner Miss Will Sneed, dressed as a gold mine “in a gown that would inspire even the most dejected prospector to try again.”

Not to be outdone, New York City brought the trend to the next level. Officials staged a regal annual parade to commemorate both Thanksgiving and the British evacuation of New York. Immigrants spoofed the stuffy, uniformed military companies by putting on their own show. Working-class men poured out of saloons and marched through streets blowing tin fish horns and beating drums. They called themselves Fantasticals and dressed garishly as clowns, politicians, and celebrities, like Buffalo Bill. Kids raided their parents’ wardrobes to join in the fun: Boys paraded in high heels and old evening gowns, as girls marched in over-size Prince Albert coats. Sensing a business opportunity, stores started selling nightmare-inducing papier-mâché masks before the fete. Children prowled the streets on Thanksgiving morning, ringing doorbells to ask strangers, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” So many kids were sporting tattered clothes and darkened faces on Thanksgiving that by the 1900s, it was known as Ragamuffin Day.

Fantasticals died out by the turn of the 20th century, but “Thanksgiving maskers” flourished—not to everyone’s amusement. “The practice of ringing all the doorbells and demanding backsheesh is long past a joke,” The New York Times complained in 1903. “This must be a foreign innovation,” intoned a 1909 Sons of Daniel Boone hand-book, “for no self-respecting American boy would think of parading the streets dressed up like a ragamuffin and begging a cent from each passer-by.” Sadistic New Yorkers threw stove-heated coins known as “red pennies” onto the street and howled in laughter as kids burned their fingers.

Red pennies failed to stop the ragamuffins, but the Great Depression did. Everybody had empty pockets by the 1930s, and the question “Anything for Thanksgiving?” was answered with “No.” At the urging of New York’s schools superintendent, civic organizations organized costume contests and parades to discourage kids from “going ragamuffin’” door-to-door.

It worked. Thanksgiving reverted to an austere, family-oriented holiday, and by 1950, trick-or-treating had shifted to a less sacred day—Halloween. The change left grown-up ragamuffins nostalgic, even about red pennies. “I remember how my fingers got blistered,” patrolman Leo Carey recalled to The New York Times in 1931. “But they don’t have any real fun like that any more.”

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

NASA // Public Domain
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.


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