The museum opened in 1976 to commemorate Philadelphia's unique New Year's Day celebration – the Mummers Parade. The museum houses a century's worth of Mummers history and memorabilia, including many of the elaborately sequined and feathered costumes that club members spend all year fabricating. The modern Mummers Parade emerged after the Civil War, but the roots of mumming in Philadelphia date back as far as the 17th century. Early working-class Philadelphians combined elements of Old World Swedish, British, and German Christmas and New Year traditions into a uniquely American, and uniquely Philadelphian, celebration. Over the years the parade has been adopted and adapted by German, Irish, Italian, and Polish Americans who formed increasingly elaborate string bands, comic clubs, and fancy brigades. By 1901, the city began to officially sponsor the parade, and the first competition between brigades was held in 1906.
Elements of mumming can be traced back to British folk traditions. Folklorists have described a ritual of "mummers' plays" that entailed a small group of men who would dress in costume and go door-to-door within the village, performing a short comic play in verse in exchange for food and drink. The leaders of 17th- and 18th-century Quaker Philadelphia first ignored, then frowned upon, the working-class tradition of "masquerading." Masquerading was officially banned in Philadelphia from 1808-1859, though the ban does not seem to have been obeyed or enforced. The first organized Mummers club, the "Chain Gang" from South Philadelphia, is thought to have convened in 1846. The end of the Civil War and rising urban immigration fueled the growth of fraternal societies and reinvigorated parades and pageantry in Philadelphia and other American cities. The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported that the 1876 parade was a "carnival of fun" with the "shooters out in force," playing in brass bands and dressed as everything from Indian squaws and clowns to bears and "Dutchmen."
Although an African American club — the Octavius V. Club — did march with much success in 1929, the Mummers parade has been and has remained mainly a white ethnic tradition. And some Mummers clubs, citing the ancient tradition of corking one's face as disguise, continued to parade in blackface until the city outlawed the practice in 1964. But less controversial aspects of the parade also reflect African American cultural influence; the parade's theme song, "Oh! Dem Golden Slippers," was composed by African American songwriter (and Philadelphian) James Bland in 1879, and it is thought that the Mummers' signature "strut" can be traced back to the 19th century Cakewalk, a popular African American dance.
The earliest Mummers clubs formed in South Philadelphia, many with headquarters along "Two Street" (South 2nd Street, below Washington Avenue). By World War II, clubs came from all over Philadelphia. The parade starts on Second Street before heading up Broad Street. Residents of both Broad Street and Two Street open up their homes for the duration of the parade, welcoming neighbors with food and drink and engaging in some impromptu strutting.
- Lewis, Barbara. "Roots of Mummers Revelry Dates to Ancient Times." The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, December 31, 1975.
- Marion, John Francis. "On New Year's Day in Philadelphia, Mummer's the Word." Smithsonian Magazine, January 1981.
- Mummers Museum. "About Us." http://www.mummersmuseum.com/about_us.html
- Welch, Charles E., Jr. " ‘Oh, Dem Golden Slippers': The Philadelphia Mummers Parade." Journal of American Folklore, vol. 79, no. 314. (Oct. –Dec. 1966): 523–536.