The first Mummers strut on Broad Street
Jan. 1 of 1901 started out a bit foggy but was a nice day by 10 a.m., when some Mummers left Reed Street and started strutting up Broad Street.
For the first time in their nearly three century history, Mummers were having one big parade.
The city fathers had invited them to unite in a march to City Hall, where judges would pick the best in two divisions, Fancy and Comic, with a top prize of $300 cash for each.
There were 21 New Year’s clubs, who normally pranced around their own neighborhoods. Many already had, early that morning.
There were all sorts of costumes: comical, fantastical, beautiful or just clothes turned inside out. A few clubs had some 250 marchers. The smallest, the White Caps Association, had only 40.
Traditionally, there were no women. There were some men dressed as women. A few women pretended to be men dressed as women.
Many clubs had brass bands with them, pumping out such hit songs of the day as “When You Were Sweet Sixteen,” “My Wild Irish Rose” and “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”
Some groups were named for their founders or leaders. The George A. Furnival Association, the Daniel Duane Association and the Elkton Association were among the big ones.
Other associations had fanciful or comic names, such as the Silver Crown Association, the Ivy Leaf, the Corinthian, the Doodlebach, the White Turnip, the Mixed Pickles, the Early Risers, the Red Onion and the Energetic Hoboes.
There was the Katzenjammer Band, a brass band named for a German slang word for a hangover and for a popular comic strip, the Katzenjammer Kids.
There was the 100-member Hardly Able Association, a name still in use recently.
The associations argued over which was oldest. Jacob Stringer, captain of the Dark Lantern Association, tried to settle the matter by telling an Evening Bulletin reporter that his group was founded in 1492, when one of Columbus’s arriving sailors on the Pinta saw a light on the shore.
Several South Philadelphia clubs wanted to go up only to South Street. City Councilman Isaac D. Hetzell from Fishtown, chairman of council’s joint committee for the event, warned that participants had to pass the city-appointed judges at City Hall to be eligible for a prize.
Elkton was ultimately named best in the Fancies, White Cap in the Comics. The parade took about two hours.
Merchants on Girard Avenue offered $1,600 in prizes for Mummers who continued up there. Others merchants, many on Second Street, also offered prizes. Some hardy Mummers went home to “The Neck” in South Philly via those streets.
One invited club that declined to take part was a musical one, the Trilby String Band, described by the Evening Bulletin as “famous as the only band of its kind in the city.”
The leader, William H. Siebrecht, explained to a Bulletin reporter that “Eighteen banjos, mandolins and guitars couldn’t be heard between two brass bands.”
The string band had no fancy costumes; members all wore top hats. The name came from “Trilby,” a wildly popular stage play. Trilby was the beautiful heroine being controlled by an evil hypnotist named Svengali.
On New Years Day 1902, the Trilby band relented and joined the second parade. The judges gave it a $25 special prize because a string band didn’t fit in either division. The rest is golden-slippered history.
Visit columnist Jim Smart’s website at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.