Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Musical Philadelphia
Quakers never cared much for music, but the city has nonetheless musically flourished into international fame. At the same time, quarrels and internal battles have also been world class.

Customs, Culture and Traditions
Abundant seafood made it easy to settle here. Agriculture takes longer.

Conventions and Convention Centers
When you have a big convention center, some circus is always coming to town. Philadelphia has always been a convention town, has had and still has lots of convention sites, and hopes to have more of the kind of famous convention we have had in the past.

Mummer's Strut


For over a century, and maybe for two centuries, the Mummers Parade has strutted around Philadelphia on New Year's day. The Mummers have lots of tradition and oral history, but the authenticity of records going back to the early days of the parade do not meet very strict standards. There are those who say that the earliest mummers were "shooters" who coursed through town on the Fourth of July, shooting pistols in the air with one hand and carrying a bottle of booze in the other. Booze, by the way, was the name of a bottle manufacturer which became associated in common parlance around 1840 with the product most commonly found in the bottle. The name booze bottle was attached to a bottle in the shape of a log cabin, suggesting a possible link to the 1840 Presidential election of William Henry Harrison, Old Tippecanoe. The other historical origin was thought to be the annual parade of the guilds, the butchers, carpenters and similar. Somehow, these two traditions came together in the annual parade on New Year's day, with various ethnic clubs spending all year getting ready to compete with each other for attention. Many of the floats are reminiscent of the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade, some cubs specialize as "comics" in the style of the old shooters dressed up as clowns. The increasingly dominant part of the parade is found in the ten or twelve String Bands.

{Marilyn Monroe Effect}
Marilyn Monroe Effect

The main instruments of the String band are the banjo, with the tune carried by some saxophones and a peculiar instrument that looks like a xylophone held up on a pole. emitting an octave of piercing chimes.The old favorites are "Dem Golden Slippers" "Wait 'till the Sun Shines Nellie" and similar fast marches. The costumes tend toward ostrich feathers and gaudy colors, and in recent years the string bands all put on a little show or dance in front of the judging stands. Since it takes place in January, it is usually quite cold at a Mummer's parade, and since the parade goes along streets lined with tall buildings, the wind builds up quite a"Marilyn Monroe Effect". Until recent years, the mummers have always been male.

The mandatory traditional food at a mummers parade is a Philadelphia soft pretzel, smeared with mustard, sold by street vendors. Hot dogs, American flags, and soft drinks are for sale, as well, and other beverages are provided by the onlookers themselves. The parade itself is only an annual public display for the mummer's clubs that have traditionally met weekly in the ethnic neighborhoods, arguing hotly about next year's costume (a deep secret until the day itself), drinking, dancing and sewing the costumes, rehearsing the tunes and the dance steps. There is a traditional "Mummer's Strut, in which the participants and many onlookers participate spontaneously. In its fullest expression, the mummer will hold an umbrella in one hand while holding forward the lapels of his jacket with the other hand, bending forward at the waist, throwing back the head, and more or less keeping time with the music., and shaking the umbrella at the cheering crowd. There's a museum devoted to this sport, located on Second Street, otherwise known as "Two Street". It's all lots of fun, but it is usually too blamed cold to stay there long, and most people eventually retreat to a nearby television to watch the rest of it In the days when the parade went up Broad Street, it passed the Union League where another New Year's tradition was in progress, with the Republican members eating terrapin and drinking Fish House punch, quite comfortable in their warm quarters looking out of bay windows. Democratic Mayor Rizzo used to march in the parade, and when he passed the League, would ostentatiously turn his head away from it. Subsequent Democratic mayors have been even more polarized; the parade now goes up Market Street.

Originally published: Thursday, August 03, 1995; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019

Dr. Fisher,

I wonder what connection these might be between the Mummers and Mardi Gras?
Posted by: George 4th   |   May 19, 2006 10:31 PM