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Celebrating Thanksgiving Then And Now
Jeff Minick

Remembrances of holidays past can enable us to appreciate the present all the more.

On Oct. 3, 1789, America’s new president, George Washington, designated the last Thursday in November of that year a day of “public thanks-giving” for the new republic and its Constitution. However, the concept didn't stick.

A family enjoys Thanksgiving dinner together, just as many generations did before them. (Biba Kayewich)

Sarah Hale, author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” had labored for years to make Thanksgiving a national event. Finally, in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln revived President Washington’s day of gratitude. This time, the idea stuck.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt made November’s fourth Thursday an official national holiday intended “to thank the Giver of all good for our national blessings.” In 1939, to extend the holiday shopping season so as to help battle the ongoing Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to a week earlier. This shift of dates met with resistance, and in 1941, he signed a bill officially declaring the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving today remains centered on gratitude, family, and food, yet there were moments in our history when circumstance and custom shaped this holiday in unusual ways. Here are some memories from the past that might enlighten and enliven our own celebrations this year.

Good Times 

At the beginning of the 20th century, American pride and confidence in itself were at a peak, and the lavish Thanksgiving dinners of the wealthy reflected the country’s abundance. The 1900 “Thanksgiving Dinner” menu for New York’s Park Avenue Hotel offered patrons their choice of such foods as oysters, creamed fresh mushrooms on toast, boiled Kennebec salmon, saddle of lamb with kidney beans, potted quail, diamondback terrapin, Rhode Island turkey, ribs of prime beef, and much more, including a sizable array of vegetables, potato dishes, desserts, candies, cheese, nuts, rum, and coffee.

Meanwhile, that same year, Good Housekeeping magazine offered its subscribers a menu more in keeping within the means of a middle-class American family of the time, with fare more familiar to us today: cranberry sauce, turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. By then, clearly, these foods had become as much a part of Thanksgiving as they are today.

President Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, and two Thanksgiving stories from his presidency tell us a little about the man and his times. In 1902, carpenters and painters were pushing to finish work on the White House’s West Wing. When the president learned that these men were laboring away on Thanksgiving Day, he insisted that they put down their tools and enjoy some of the food being prepared in the White House kitchen.

Two years later, the Boston Herald, no friend of President Roosevelt’s, reported that upon receipt of the Thanksgiving turkey from Rhode Islander Horace Vose, the president had released the turkey from its cage and then gleefully cheered as his young children chased the bird all over the White House lawn, shouting, plucking its feathers, and running the poor creature nearly to death. Some Americans expressed astonishment and dismay that President Roosevelt, a lover of wildlife, would allow this behavior.

As it turned out, the story was an utter fabrication. The bird had arrived dressed and ready for the kitchen stove, and President Roosevelt's secretary furiously condemned the attack from the paper. For the rest of his presidency, he refused to have anything to do with the Boston Herald.

Nothing new here. Some in our news and social media still commit this same sort of "fowl."

Tough Times 

In “What Thanksgiving Dinner Looked Like During the Great Depression,” Kirstie Bingham writes that in 1933, turkey was $0.23 a pound. Today, that pound will cost the consumer about $1.27. The turkey from a century ago sounds cheap until Ms. Bingham reminds us that the hourly wage at the time, for those who could even find work, was about $0.53 and that a Thanksgiving dinner for six would cost approximately $5.50, which could easily equal 10 hours of work or more.

So those folks, as some of us may do this year, substituted less expensive foods for Thanksgiving. Old chickens were cooked slowly to tenderize the meat. Oyster stew was exchanged for side dishes such as sweet potatoes. Cheap canned vegetables such as peas and green beans were added to the Thanksgiving fare. An Indiana cream pie, known popularly as “Hoosier cream pie” and consisting mainly of milk, sugar, and butter, was substituted for the more expensive pumpkin pies.

For these families, the menu changed, but the Thanksgiving spirit lived on.


World War II brought new challenges to chefs and celebrants. Though factories and farms were soon booming, shortages limited access to certain foods, and gas rationing meant that visits with Grandma might be impossible. With so many men overseas and in military camps, many households also saw some empty chairs around the dining room table.

Yet Americans endeavored once again to brighten the holiday. Vegetables grown in “victory gardens” were canned and made their way to the kitchen. If there were bases nearby, soldiers were often invited into homes for the season’s big meal. The United Service Organizations (USO) and other volunteer organizations worked hard to make Thanksgiving special for soldiers stateside. In Olympia, Washington, for instance, the high school’s YMCA club, along with various churches, organized ecumenical Thanksgiving services to raise money for prisoners of war, while the USO club held Thanksgiving Day buffets along with games and a dance.

Thanksgiving from the war years was also commemorated in Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” which many of us today simply call the Thanksgiving painting. Here, Rockwell depicts a joyful family gathered around a table just as the turkey is being served. The painting was immensely popular, with millions of reproductions, and reminded both civilians and soldiers what they were fighting for.

By November 1944, it was clear that America and her allies were winning the war. Aware of the cost and the sacrifices still being made by so many Americans, one newspaper editorialized the following at Thanksgiving: “Above all, let us be grateful not only for the success of our cause, but for the courage and sacrifices of our brave sons, brothers, and husbands that made the victories possible.

“And then we must always be grateful for tomorrow when life will resume its normal course and time mercifully will heal the wounds of mankind.”

In that editorial is the word that belongs with Thanksgiving as surely as turkey and backyard football games: grateful.

Thanking the Thankful

President Washington asked America to give thanks after 14 years of upheaval and war. President Lincoln issued his proclamation in the middle of the bloodiest war that our country has ever fought. Our recent ancestors celebrated Thanksgiving through a decade of hard times, and then through four more years of a horrible world war that left hundreds of thousands of families bereft over the death of a loved one.

Now, we’re the ones living in a moment of history when trials again plague our country, so that when we gather for Thanksgiving this year, we may have trouble summoning gratitude and appreciation. We may be thankful for our friends and family, but we look around the table at our children and grandchildren and rightly wonder what sort of world they’ll inherit.

Maybe, then, this is a good year to pause, look over our shoulders, and thank the thankful of earlier generations. Maybe if we remember the gratitude that they felt and expressed, and their tenacity in the face of their own trials, we might better remember the blessings in our own lives, and so add to our store of strength and courage.

When I started counting my blessings,” said songwriter and singer Willie Nelson, “my whole life turned around.”

That’s a step in the right direction.

And Thanksgiving is tailor-made for those acts of gratitude.




Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.

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