Waiting for the Mummer Crowds

Caption

City Hall Spectators ‘ Stand – North Side Looking West, December 29, 1949. Gaffredo F. Aristarco and Charles J. Bender, Photographers (PhillyHistory.org)

Mummery took a fortuitous step in 1949 when weather forced postponement of the New Year’s Day parade. A week later, on Saturday January 8, Nature and Public collaborated to produce the best turnout ever. An estimated 2 million people, double the million celebrants from previous years, came out and lined Broad Street.

As 1950 rolled around, most Philadelphians only dreamed of enjoying the parade from the temporary bleachers surrounding City Hall.

Was good weather and willing citizenry enough to double the size of the crowd in 1949? A close look at contemporary color footage shows plenty of sunshine and packed sidewalks, but no way to guess the size of the crowd that stretched for miles and lasted all day long. For that, we turn to social scientists who practice the finely-honed art of crowd estimation.

They have a name for it. The estimate of 1949 was a SWAG, a “stupid wild-ass guess.”

There are SWAGs almost no one bothers to challenge, and so we live with them. The Boston World Series parade in 2004 (2 million) or the Chicago Stanley Cup parade in 2013 (3 million). In 1949, no one in Philadelphia seemed to worry that two million was about the same as the city’s entire population (in 1950, the census counted 2,071,605). Nor would they question the logic that two million people require a Broad Street many times longer to accommodate a crowd that size. Estimated crowd sizes at parades and celebrations are rarely contested.

Not so with political rallies and protests. Remember the controversial discrepancy in the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C.?  Organizers estimated that crowd between 1.5 and 2 million people; police put the number at 400,000. Controversy-fueled revised estimates moved the needle up to 837,000—with a twenty percent margin of error.

Ah, science.

Mummers parade numbers were accepted without question, except for one memorable case in 1994. Police estimates came in at a paltry 22,000, generating a SWAG that sent shock waves up and down Broad Street. City Hall’s bleachers alone were capable of accommodating nearly that many attendees, argued one official. Twenty-two thousand was about a fifth of the 100,000 estimated the previous two years and less than a fifteenth of the 350,000 of 1991.  “That report has people going crazy,” commented parade grand marshal David L. Cohen. “A ridiculous figure,” declared then City Councilman and Mummer Jim Kenney, a member of the Jokers New Years Association.

Twenty-two thousand—a figure subsequently revised to 70,000—was even lower than the estimate from 1964, perhaps the Mummers’ poorest attended year—the year traditional blackface Mummery was banned. Crowds stayed away in droves, according to The New York Times, after learning about what testimony offered to a three-judge Common Pleas Court considering the case. Police Commissioner Howard R. Leary spoke about the possibility of “physical violence” and “serious upheaval” as a result of “an active recruiting program being conducted in Harlem to come here and protest.” Leary informed the court that the local chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had told him “blood would spill in the streets” if the practice of blackface continued. A former State Supreme Court Justice testified about “the possibility of widespread disorder and rioting.” And the acting director of the Commission on Human Relations confirmed “the possibility of a physical clash and its spreading is very real and very grave.”

The court granted not one, but two injunctions, one banning blackface and another prohibiting picketing by civil rights groups. “Three thousand policemen, more than half of the department’s street-duty personnel, lined the four-mile route.”  Police buses interspersed with string bands and comic divisions made for a tense and relatively muted Broad Street as parade regulars chose to watch the nationally televised broadcast from home. “Instead of the usual million,” reported the Associated Press in a story headlined “No Blackfaces Or Incidents, But Mummers Crowd Small,” attendance estimates came in as low as 35,000.

And then, blackface-free, Mummers parades bounced back to familiar levels: 1 million in 1965; 1.3 million in 1966 and 1.7 million in 1967.

But who’s counting?

(Sources Include: John Woestendiek, “A Mummers Flap Over Crowd Size The First Police Figure, 22,000, Didn’t Sit Well. It Was Adjusted Upward,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 1994; Ellen Gray, “When Cops Size Up Mummers Crowd, They Man The Barricades,” The Philadelphia Daily News, January 4, 1994; William G. Weart, “Blackface is Barred In Mummers Parade,” The New York Times, January 3, 1964 and “Mummers March Without Incident,” The New York Times, January 5, 1964.)

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