Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

Pilgrim Life

Life magazine was a different sort of periodical in its first incarnation, from 1883 to 1936, than after, when photographs characterized its style and substance. The earlier Life was all about illustration, and all the famous graphic artists of the era contributed to its pages: everyone from Charles Dana Gibson to Norman Rockwell. It seems to have been a humorous society magazine with some very cutting caricatures, and as I was leafing through a succession of Thanksgiving “numbers” I found a very dark view of the “Ye Merrie New England Thanksgiving of Earlier Dayes” by illustrator F.T Richards from 1895. Dark. Even Hawthornesque, you might say.

Life Thanksgiving Puritans 1895

Pilgrim LifePuritans and Witches 1895

And quite a departure from the more playful portrayal of Thanksgiving Pilgrims published in Life and other contemporary periodicals in the first decades of the twentieth century: First Thanksgivings, amorous encounters and myriad in-the-stocks scenarios. Then the war comes and changes everything for longer than its duration, followed by the cult-of-celebrity culture that still seems to define us.

Life 1904-11-

Life 1910-11-03

Life 1913-11-06

Life1923-11-22 (2)Life covers from 1904, 1910, 1913 & 1923.


Mid (19th)-century Thanksgiving

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving was a very different holiday in some ways, but familiar in others. It did not become a national holiday until 1863: before that the Salem papers (I’m using the Salem Register in this post) note with each passing year how many governors have issued proclamations adopting the “joyous festival, so long the ‘peculiar institution’ of New England”. How jarring to see this phrase applied to Thanksgiving—when I thought it was an exclusive reference to slavery!  I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with the phrase “Universal Yankee Nation” in this 1847 article either.

Thanksgiving 1847 collage

Apart from the provincial pride, Thanksgiving was also a busy public holiday, rather than merely a family gathering. It was both sacred and secular, and everyone was out and about in the morning (for church services) and the evening (for concerts and dances). I assume they ate their Thanksgiving dinners in between, as there were lots of advertisements for various foodstuffs  in the weeks before the big day, which was always in November in Massachusetts despite some December dates chosen by other states. Provisioning and preparations were very important: not just for family meals, but also for the meals that were prepared by different civic groups for orphans, prisoners, “inmates of the Alms House”, and (during the Civil War) soldiers.

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Thanksgiving Salem_Observer_1849-11-24_[2]

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Thanksgiving 1852 collage

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Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1854-11-20_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1857-11-30_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1863-11-05_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1865-11-06_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1875-11-15_2

These advertisements from the Salem Register (from 1847-75) give some semblance of what Thanksgiving festivities were all about in mid-nineteenth-century Salem but are an under-representation: people really wanted to give thanks in as many ways as possible, especially during the Civil War. But they also wanted to celebrate: Thanksgiving is always referred to as a “festival”. Turkey–and other fowl– was definitely on the menu as you can see from the “warning” to Salem’s resident birds, and cranberries as well. I remain extremely impressed by the entrepreneurialism of Mr. John Remond, an African-American man who served as the resident manager and caterer of (a very busy) Hamilton Hall while also running several provisioning businesses downtown: he arrived in Salem from the West Indies in 1798, all alone and only ten years old, and seems to have transformed himself into one of the city’s major players by the 1820s. He and his wife Nancy (who also had her own business–and they had eight children) were also active abolitionists and do not seem to have suffered the handicaps faced by most African-Americans in the nineteenth century, but then again, advertisements only reflect one small sliver of their lives. But they can tell us that year after year in Salem, oysters, whether individually or in pies, were much in demand for Thanksgiving.


Thanksgiving Menus

If there is one genre of history that has benefitted particularly and immensely from digitization, it is culinary history: cookbooks from all ages are readily available and I easily mined two collections of restaurant menus to come up with a portfolio of Thanksgiving feasts past, from 1883 to the 1950s. The New York Public Library’s Buttolph Collection includes nearly 19,000 menus, and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’s Digital Collections include a range of menus under the heading “The Art of Dining”. There are many more places to find menus online: a great list is here. I’m not really a foodie, so I was more interested in the evolving cover art than the food, but I have included several bills of fare below: you can find more by going to the sources. These are primarily menus from large hotel restaurants which seem to be concerned with offering their guests multiple choices and courses: turkey is always featured prominently but not exclusively! Last year’s little investigation of the holiday drink “Tom and Jerry” made me very excited to see frozen Tom and Jerry on the 1899 menu of Boston’s Quincy House, and it seems very clear that English plum pudding was a staple on fancy feasts for this most American of holidays until at least World War I.

Thanksgiving 1883 Briggs_House_menu_page_1

Thanksgiving Picture1

Thanksgiving 1898 nypl.digitalcollections.510d47db-3321-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.q

Thanksgiving nypl.digitalcollections.510d47db-3325-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.q 1899

Thanksgiving collage

Thanksgiving 1905 nypl.digitalcollections.510d47db-765f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.q

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Thanksgiving collage 3

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Thanksgiving 1955 nypl.digitalcollections.a6dbdb16-2467-df3a-e040-e00a18064c6f.001.w

Thanksgiving The_Sands_menu_pages_23 (1) 1957

Thanksgiving 1958 Sands_Hotel_and_Casino_menu_page_1Thanksgiving menus from all over the country and 1883 to 1958 (1883, 1898, 1898, 1999, 1905, 1905, 1906, 1914, 1929, 1955, 1957, 1958), from the Buttolph Collection of the New York Public Library and UNLV’s “Art of Dining” Collection.


Happy Thanksgiving

I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year, an intimidating task for me, and I’ve been too busy with my various preparations to come up with a proper (thematic, colorful, aspirationally interesting?) post for the holiday, but I did want to say Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, however briefly. May we all have the calm and the company to reflect on what we are truly grateful for in this…..interesting year. Back in a few days with something more substantive, and leaving you with a few images for the day: Trinity (helpfully) serving as a centerpiece until I came up with something more stable, the glittery squirrels I seem to be placing everywhere (tacky I know, but I just love them), and Governor Belcher’s 1730 Thanksgiving Proclamation for Massachusetts Bay. What were our predecessors thankful for? Peace, a good harvest, and the diminution of pirates and smallpox. The basics.

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Courtesy Winterthur Museum Collections.

    I have therefore thought fit, with the advice of His Majesty’s Council, to appoint THURSDAY the TWELFTH of NOVEMBER next, a day of Public THANKSGIVING throughout this Province, hereby exhorting both ministers and people in their several assemblies, religiously to solemnize the same by offering up their sincere and grateful PRAISES for the manifold blessings and favors which GOD of His undeserved goodness hath conferred upon us; PARTICULARLY, in continuing to us the invaluable life of Our Sovereign Lord the KING, with His Royal Consort Our Most Gracious QUEEN, His Royal Highness the PRINCE OF WALES, and the rest of the royal issue; In succeeding His Majesty’s wise councils FOR RESTORING and establishing the peace of EUROPE; In prolonging the ecclesiastical and civil privileges of this people; In granting his gracious conduct and assistance in the administration of the civil government of this Province; In restoring HEALTH to many of our towns lately visited with a contagious distemper [small pox], and preserving others from the infection thereof; In maintaining our PEACE with the Indian Natives, and granting us a plentiful HARVEST, in giving success to our MERCHANDISE AND FISHERY, and protecting it from the insults and ravages of PIRATES, with other numberless instances of the Divine beneficence: And all servile labor is prohibited on the said Day.


Fabricating the Feast

Can there be any other holiday more closely associated with women than Thanksgiving? Forget the quasi-mythical “First Thanksgiving”, for which we only have references to men fowling and feasting–after that it’s all about women. What emerged as a New England tradition in the early nineteenth century was transformed into a national holiday through the intense efforts of author and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, eventually resulting in Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863. Several other New England ladies contributed to this effort, including Lydia Maria Child, whose “Over the River and through the Wood” we traditionally associate with Christmas but was first published in 1844 as “The New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving”. Successive presidents followed Lincoln’s precedent until 1941, when Congress established the fourth Thursday of November as a permanent Thanksgiving holiday. In the interim, a major medium for the adoption of a national harvest holiday seems to have been women’s magazines, chief among them Hale’s own Godey’s Ladies Book and later Good Housekeeping, The Ladies’ Home Journal (and Practical Housekeeper), (The) House Beautiful, and even Harper’s Bazaar. There was definitely a bit of culinary imperialism at work here: the ideal Thanksgiving menu published in Hale’s first novel, Northwood, was Yankee fare (cranberries!), but as turkey assumed the center stage (pushing out the very popular chicken pot pie and assorted other fowl) regional dishes could be assimilated as “sides”. And need I even say it? Women were making all those Thanksgiving feasts.

Thanksgiving HP 1894

Thanksgiving 1895 Bradley

Thanksgiving LHJ 1897-98

Thanksgiving 1904 Puck

Thanksgiving Pictorial Review 1906 Cover

Bearing Thanksgiving HP 1914

Thanksgiving gh 1937

Fabricating a very FEMININE Thanksgiving in the popular print media, 1894-1937: 1894-95 covers by Louis John Rhead and William H. Bradley, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Ladies’ Home Journal Thanksgiving covers for 1897 and 1898; 1904 Puck Magazine cover, Library of Congress;  Pictorial Review and Ullman Manufacturing calendar page for November 1906; Harpers Bazaar and Good Housekeeping covers, 1914 and 1937, Library of Congress and Good Housekeeping archive.


Thanksgiving Colors

We spent Thanksgiving up in my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, which is only about an hour north of Salem. When we arrived York looked very different than still-green Salem, coated in icy snow. Many people in the southern counties of Maine and adjacent counties of New Hampshire lost their power due to a Thanksgiving-eve snowstorm, but we were fortunate to have light and heat and lots of food and drink. While waiting to eat on Thanksgiving Day, we took a drive around the grey town: York (encompassing York Harbor, York Village, York Beach and Cape Neddick) is a summer town and it always looks strikingly stark to me in the winter. I’ve also got some pictures of my stepmother’s Thanksgiving table here–before we messed it up. When we returned to Salem, all was icy and white but today is forecasted for the 50s so the terrain is returning to that golden brownish-green hue so characteristic of November.

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This cat o’nine tail exploded before we left; the rest burst while we were away (just one day and night!) Impossible to clean up all this fluff.

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Thanksgiving table: Della Robbia plates and Shaker chairs.

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Fifty shades of grey off Nubble Light.

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White on white: one of my favorite houses in York, and the gargoyle outside my parents’ house.

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My favorite childhood painting.

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Back home; sunny Sunday.


Cranberry Picking

“…as why are Strawberries sweet and Cranberries sowre, there is no reason but the wonderfull worke of God that made them so…”.  John Eliot, the Puritan “Apostle to the Indians”, used the “American” name rather than the preferred English fenberry (variantly bear-berry and mosse-berry) in his 1647 treatise The Day-Breaking if not the Sun-Rising of the Gospell with the Indians in New-England, one of several seventeenth-century references to the sour little berry that was so common in Massachusetts. Along with corn, this was one native American crop that captured the attention of  the English early on–though most of their efforts seem to have been directed at transforming cranberries into something sweeter:  syrups, tarts, sauces.  They could not ignore a berry that ripened in the winter!

One last Thanksgiving weekend post on a fruit that remains one of Massachusetts’ few commercial crops, although we are no longer the country’s leading producer:  that title is now claimed by Wisconsin.  Still, there’s a major harvest every year starting in late September, and it’s a beautiful sight to see.  I just couldn’t make it down to the southeastern part of the state this busy semester, but here’s a great recent photograph of a bog at the A.D. Makepeace Company in Wareham, one of the state’s oldest producers.

Photo credit:  Charlie Mahoney for the Boston Globe; 1907 Makepeace Co. cranberry sign,Etsy.

The conditions of cranberry picking have changed a lot over the last century, for the better. Documentary photographers like Lewis Wickes Hine focused on the industrial exploitation of child and migrant labor in the early nineteenth century, and contemporary photographs of very small children, native Americans, and newly-arrived Europeans (in the case of southeastern Massachusetts, primarily Portuguese “bravas” from New Bedford, led by bog bosses called padrones) abound.

Portuguese cranberry pickers at the Eldridge Bog in Rochester, Massachusetts, and the “tenement” that housed them, September 1911, and a boy “scooper” at the Makepeace Bog. The caption of the last photograph reads: Gordon Peter, using scoop with metal teeth not covered. Said 10 years old. One of the smallest scoopers that we found. Usually scooping is done by adults. Been picking 3 years. Location: Makepeace near Wareham, Massachusetts. Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress.

The pictures above contrast sharply with the recent photograph of the cranberry harvest at Makepeace, but also with artistic representations of cranberry picking in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Two paintings that fall on either side of Hine’s photographs are Eastman Johnson’s Cranberry Pickers, Island of Nantucket (1880) and Provincetown artist Ross Moffett’s circa 1930 Cranberry Pickers. Moffett’s modernistic representation of the workers in their spare Cape Cod context is a lot bleaker than Johnson’s more romantic image, but both artists seem to focus on the landscape at least as much as on the pickers.

Eastman Johnson, Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket, 1880, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego; Ross Moffett, Cranberry Pickers, c. 1927-30, Smithsonian American Art Museum.


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