A century or so ago, Thanksgiving seems to have been commemorated as one of our most patriotic holidays, on a par with Independence Day. Its gradual transition from custom to national holiday was definitely accelerated by wars: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II all brought official recognition of a day of collective and public thanks-giving in November. In 1789, George Washington signed a proclamation designating November 26 a day of national Thanksgiving, and in the midst of the Civil War President Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday of November be “set apart as a day of thanksgiving and praise”. During another time of national crisis, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress gave its official seal of approval for the last-Thursday holiday in an act that was signed by President Roosevelt on December 26, 1941. Along with wars, the constant flow of immigration no doubt also motivated the celebration of Thanksgiving as a unifying, national (and also increasingly secular) occasion, and the postcards below really reflect that message. They are all from the first decade of the twentieth century, a peak period for European immigration into the United States, and the vast postcard collection of the New York Public Library.
The New York Public Library also has a large collection of historic restaurant menus, many of which are digitized, allowing you to chart changing culinary traditions. The standardization of Thanksgiving fare and the official recognition of the holiday definitely go hand in hand. Having spent several Thanksgivings in Britain, I found this menu cover from the 1906 Thanksgiving Day Banquet put on by the American Society in London particularly appealing, and it also reflects the language of both Washington’s and Lincoln’s earlier proclamations, which called for the national day of Thanks-giving to be celebrated by Americans everywhere.