Mummers 3

Mummers 101: The sequins, blackface and binge drinking behind a Philly New Year’s tradition

New Year’s Day is coming up, so get ready to see a bunch of men (and a few women and children) known as Mummers dressed in regalia befitting an Outkast music video marching through the city as you rise from your alcohol-induced New Year’s Eve slumber. So, exactly what are all these people doing and how should you enjoy it?

These aren’t easy questions. The concept of Mummers and their myriad divisions is difficult to grasp (WTF is the difference between Fancy and Comic?), especially for newcomers. And while a perfectly adequate explanation for Mummerdom is to call it “a Philly thing,” and leave it alone, we won’t stop there. We can’t stop there. So buckle up: Here, now, Billy Penn tackles the Mummers and their famous New Year’s Day parade.

How and when did all of this Mummer’s business get started in Philadelphia?  

A long, long time ago, before there was a United States, Swedish immigrants introduced Mummery to Philadelphia. It started in the late 17th century as an old tradition of visiting friends in the days after Christmas, extending all the way to New Year’s, and celebrating by dressing up as though it were a masquerade party. And what a party it was. They marched from house to house and because most Pennsylvanians carried guns back then (hey, some things haven’t changed) and they fired shots into the air. Within 100 years or so, these activities became more official, and the name “The New Year’s Shooters and Mummers Association” was given. Most of the participants hailed from the South Philly neighborhoods Moyamensing and Southwark, according to Patricia Masters’ book “The Philadelphia Mummers: Building Community Through Play.” Philadelphia made the Mummer’s Parade an official, sanctioned event on New Year’s Day 1901, and it’s taken place ever since, except for weather postponements.

Mummer 1890s

So is it a Philly-only thing?

The Mummers don’t exist like this anywhere else in America, but they’re around the world. History traces Mummers-esque activities all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians, and small town Canadians participate in Mummers activities the day after Christmas.

How does the parade work?

The different clubs and divisions of Mummers dance, strut, perform and, in the case of the String Band division, play instruments. They’re judged near City Hall. Mummers from the Fancy Brigades also perform skits in the Convention Center.

There are five Mummer divisions: Comic, Wench Brigades, Fancy Division, Fancy Brigades and String Bands. And within the separate divisions, there are about 40 total clubs that can have as many 65 people. Here’s how they break down:

Comic: Considered the traditional Mummers. They make fun of news or pop culture through skits and themes and often dress as clowns.

Wench Brigades: An offshoot of the Comic division. They portray a central theme through costume also intended to be funny. They’re pretty much men dressed like women and though they’re named after medieval women they trace their origins back to 19th century-era plantation women.

Fancy Division: Known for the most elaborate costumes. Like so elaborate you’ll feel like you’re in the song “Yellow Submarine.”

Fancy Brigades: They’re a spinoff of the Fancy Division, also known for elaborate costumes. They perform 4.5 minute broadway-style skits inside the Convention Center.

String Bands: The Mummers who strut and play music at the same time (now that’s a skill). They use instruments like saxophones, banjos, accordions, violins and various percussion instruments.

I heard something about the parade route changes. What’s up? And why are Mummers pissed?

This year, the Mummers will start their march near City Hall and march down Broad Street to Washington Avenue… Except for the Wench Brigades, which will march north from Washington Avenue and then meet up with the rest of the parade for the march south.

This route is different from previous years, and some Mummers are pissed about it because the route doesn’t go deep into South Philly. In years past, the parade has started at Oregon Street in South Philadelphia and gone north to City Hall. The route is also just a mile long, rather than the typical three miles. Mummer leadership proposed the changes, not the city, largely because nobody was even showing up to watch in South Philly anymore.

What exactly do the Mummers wear?

Anything with sequins. Seriously. It’s a little more detailed than that, but sequins are a good place to start. VisitPhilly did a web miniseries on several facets of the parade, including costumes. According to that series, the costumes used to be cotton-based but evolved to become fancier and fancier and are now often made from satin and include mylar and metallic touches. Feathers are popular too, from birds like roosters and ostriches. The different clubs within the divisions stick to a theme, so clubs dress alike. There’s really no better way to learn about Mummers costumes than to observe. So, behold:

Mummer 1943

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Mummer 2

The costumes are expensive, though. The most extravagant costumes can cost up to $10,000, and costumes for 65-person clubs can cost close to $100,000.

Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars just to look flamboyant one day of the year?

First of all, there’s no rule saying you can’t wear those outfits pictured above on any other day of the year. Buuuuut it’s not recommended. So yes, Mummers spend heaps of dough that they raise from their communities, sponsors, various performances or even philanthropic organizations. They do it because it’s fun and for bragging rights and for family traditions. If you’re not a Mummer, you probably wouldn’t get it. The city used to dole out $150,000 in prize money but not anymore.

Does the city anything pay for the parade?

A little bit. Philadelphia started giving $300,000 a year in 2008. Before then, it would spend as much as $1 million for security, cleanup and prizes. To make up for the lost funding, Mummers have gotten sponsorships from Southwest Airlines and SugarHouse Casino. The Greater Philadelphia Traditions Fund, started by local Democratic Congressman Bob Brady, plans to contribute $100,000 this year that will partially be used for the parade.

Which people become Mummers? And are they only dudes?

They are the “good working people” of Philadelphia and mainly still come from the working class neighborhoods of South Philly, though Mummers now hail from anywhere in the area. It’s a family tradition. Mummers usually get introduced to the activity from relatives. About 10,000 Mummers participate in the annual parade, according to the group’s official website.

Most of them are men. Women didn’t participate in the parade until 1975, when two teenage girls played in Crean String Band, breaking the gender barrier. But it’s not like the Mummers have become a melting pot of the sexes. In 1996, it was considered a big deal when about 10 percent of all string band performers were women. Further, some male Mummers acknowledged women were added largely because of declining membership, not because they particularly wanted to open up the parade to women.

How long does the parade last?

For seven or eight hours the last few years (it’s scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. this year). But they used to be much longer. In 2003, the Mummers were told to speed it up in order to appeal more to spectators. Back in the 80s and 90s, parades went on for 10 hours or longer. In 1989, the parade lasted longer than 14 hours.

Do Mummers hang out together throughout the year or just on New Year’s?

The parade is obviously their big day, but Mummers gather all the time. Many of the individual clubs have clubhouses — many of them on Two Street (S. Second Street) in South Philly — and they get together to raise money for the parade, practice, hang out (or, yikes, allegedly promote prostitution).

Have the Mummers caused controversy?  

More times than you could count. In addition to sexism, they’ve often been accused of racism. It actually took a court order to get them to stop using blackface — and that happened starting with the 1964 parade. The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas banned blackface, and a bunch of Mummers weren’t having it — some of them protested in blackface.

 

Some still applied the blackface in the parade when they marched through predominantly black neighborhoods.

You’ll still find very few minorities participating in the Mummers parade, and in 2013 a club sparked controversy by performing a skit advocating against outsourcing by dressing like Native American stereotypes. But the Mummers are considered to be more open than in the past. Last year, several transvestites participated.

Didn’t a Mummer just get arrested recently, too?

Yeah. A well-known Mummer and his daughter were arrested and charged with brutally attacking a homeless man in Queen Village. And there was also the prostitution scandal from 2011.

I’m not a Mummer. What should I be doing during the parade?

Carousing. Laughing. Yelling. Drinking. Partying. Etc.

For the Mummers, the parade may be serious business. For everyone else it’s a great excuse to day-drink and test the old wives tale that the best way to cure your New Year’s Eve hangover is with more Bud Light, Korbel or Jack and Coke the next morning. Two Street is known as the best place to party.

And TBH, the parade isn’t that serious for Mummers. They drink, too.

Shoot, how many beers do you think I’ll be able to drink during this long parade?

Great question. Probably a lot. But be responsible and discreet. It’s still not legal to drink in public, and you don’t want to end up like this Mummer.

Where should I watch it in person?

They do their acts and get judged by City Hall, but the bleachers near there are already sold out. Probably best to get a spot somewhere on Broad Street between City Hall and Washington. It will likely be less crowded the farther south you go.

And if you’re not into actually seeing the parade, just head over to Two Street, around Mifflin or about anywhere south of Washington. 

Can I watch it on TV?

It will be televised on PHL 17. Or you can stream it here.

Will the Mummers Parade last forever?

The Mummers are already an institution older than our country, so that’s pretty damn good. And as we all know, traditions are slow to die in Philadelphia. That said, the Mummers are facing a bit of a crisis at this moment, probably slightly exaggerated because Mummers are like 19 times more traditional than even average Philadelphians. Anyway, the changing of the route is seen by many as a negative, and participation in the parade is dropping. In 2001, about 12,000 people participated. This year an estimated 8,000 will participate. Participation is so low that only one Fancy Club will participate.    

One Mummer told the Inquirer about the size of String Bands, “”They just keep dwindling and dwindling. I hate to even think about 10 years from now.”

Historical photos via Philadelphia Evening Bulletin courtesy of Temple University.

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