J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 06, 2011

“Guy Fawkes, dressed up in an odd fashion with a mask for a face”

During the Revolutionary War, Americans discarded the idea of celebrating the deliverance of the British king and Parliament from being blown up on 5 Nov 1605. For a while folks converted that sort of festivity into a different sort of celebration: reviling Benedict Arnold instead, enjoying general mummery, and renaming the holiday as “Pork Night.” Finally we commercialized it as Halloween.

In Britain, on the other hand, the Fifth of November became more institutionalized through the 1800s, and got called “Guy Fawkes’ Day.” The centerpiece of the celebration was the procession of “the guy”—an effigy of the luckless plotter discovered with gunpowder under Parliament—to a bonfire.

In 1845, Samuel G. Goodrich (shown above, courtesy of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society) wrote about this tradition under the name Peter Parley in his Tales about Great Britain:

Every party of boys has a figure called Guy Fawkes, dressed up in an odd fashion with a mask for a face. This figure is usually seated on a chair, and carried from house to house, the boys rapping at the doors and bidding the “good people remember, the fifth of November, for the gunpowder plot, should never be forgot.” Thus they collect money, which enables them to buy fireworks to be let off at night at their bonfires.
The major differences between those processions and the traditions recalled in New England is that the colonial youth called their effigy the Pope, and he sat on a wagon rather than a chair.

Masks were a standard part of the British celebration. Volume 2 of the Lancet, published in 1846, included a case study about a “Death from Fright.” A two-year-old girl had died after seeing “a little boy, in a red ‘Guy-Fawkes’ mask” peer through a sweet-shop window. The red mask represented a devil (or, as the little girl called it, a “Bogie”) rather than Fawkes himself.

In 1849-1850, the journalist Henry Mayhew conducted a bunch of interviews with working-class people in the British capital, later collected as London Labour and the London Poor: The London Street-Folk. That book had a long section on Guy Fawkes Day traditions. Here are quotations from various interviewees, showing how the celebrants used masks:
  • The Guy: “He had a large brimmed hat with a low crown in, and a wax mask. I always had wax ones. . . . The other figure was the devil. . . . He had a devil’s mask on, and I made him a pair of horns out of his head.”
  • “A fourpenny mask makes the [Guy Fawkes] face, and a proper cocked hat…”
  • “a pantomime mask, or one used to hand outside some masquerade costumier’s shop door.”
  • “then we put the mask on: it was a twopenny one—they’re a great deal cheaper than they used to be; you can get a very good one now for a penny—it had a great big nose, and it had two red horns, black eyebrows, and red cheeks. I like devils, they’re so ugly.”
  • One teenager remembered being a living guy about the age of seven: “Then I put on a black mask with a little red on the cheek, to make me look like a devil: it had horns, too. Always pick out a devil’s mask with horns: it looks fine, and frightens the people a’most.”
Thus, the term “Guy Fawkes mask” had come to mean two things: the mask for the Fawkes effigy itself, and masks of devils or other creatures that boys wore on Guy Fawkes’ Day.

TOMORROW: Visual representations.


Charles Bahne said...

Concerning the connection between Guy Fawkes Day and Halloween: I remember reading, some years ago, that still in the last half of the 20th century some rural New Englanders would make a straw man (effigy) using old clothing, and consign it to a bonfire on Halloween night. According to this article, the people called the effigy a "guy" but had no idea of the origin of the word.

Might be worth investigating in some modern folklore sources.

J. L. Bell said...

I know folklore scholars documented some Guy Fawkes/Pope Night customs hanging around in the late 1890s in Newburyport and Portsmouth, but haven’t come across anything more recent. One problem is that once mass media arrives, it’s hard to tell what customs are indigenous and what have been inspired by customs elsewhere.

Perhaps Peter M at New England Folklore knows more.