Thursday, November 22, 2012

A New York Thanksgiving -- 1871

Thanksgiving postcards, like Christmas cards, would become highly popular by the 1880s.
At the beginning of the 19th century Thanksgiving had already become an established American tradition.  In her 1827 novel, “Northwood; or, a Tale of New England,” Sarah Josepha Hale wrote an entire chapter about a contemporary Thanksgiving dinner.   In 1846 the author, now editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, began a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

For seventeen years she tirelessly wrote to Congressmen, governors and influential businessmen seeking to have the last Thursday in November proclaimed Thanksgiving Day.  By 1859 30 states and three territories observed the holiday on the third Thursday of November; but the nationwide status eluded Hale until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national day of thanksgiving.

It was about this time that the turkey was becoming accepted as the de rigueur main course of the Thanksgiving table.   For a time a roast goose was the preferred fare, in New England it was beef, and chickens were also served.  But by 1871 the turkey was as much a symbol of Thanksgiving as the pilgrim hat.  And, to the offense of some Victorians, the holiday meal had supplanted the original purpose:  giving thanks.

In 1871 workers on a turkey farm pluck and clean birds for Thanksgiving -- Harper's Weekly (copyright expired)
Scribner’s Magazine stomped its editorial foot that year, saying that Americans had “almost lost sight of” the religious purpose of the holiday.  The writer was especially critical of the cities—like New York—where attending church services was not considered obligatory on Thanksgiving Day.   Instead of prayer and reflection, said the article, “what has grown to be considered the real event, the raison d’etre of the day, namely, the dinner.” 

A contemporary cigarette card emphasized the meal’s importance.  “We must not fail to state a hearty dinner of roast-turkey and cranberry sauce, etc., is necessary to all those who would properly celebrate the day.”   The sideboards of 5th Avenue and the dining tables of Murray Hill groaned under the weight of soup tureens, platters of oysters, fish, steaming vegetables and, of course, the roast turkey.   Elegantly-dressed guests alit from carriages despite the bone-chilling cold that year and the howling winds.  The New-York Tribune reported the following day that “All classes were fully predetermined to enjoy themselves yesterday, and neither the bitter wind that blew with cruel violence during the day, nor the almost arctic temperature, altered the fixity of their purpose in the slightest degree.”

New Yorkers in 1871 who could afford it spent lavishly on their Thanksgiving feast.   When Mrs. Honora O’Brien of No. 46 Mulberry Street set off to buy the provisions for her dinner, she took ample cash for her purchases.  14-year old John Connolly snatched her pocketbook, making off with the $33—nearly $500 today.  The O’Brien family had a sparse holiday dinner and young Connolly spent Thanksgiving in jail.

The term “dinner” has grown imprecise as far as timing is concerned; however to Victorians it referred specifically to the afternoon meal.  Thanksgiving dinner was served around 1:00.  When John Jay, the American Minister to Austria, hosted a Thanksgiving Day “supper” for Americans in Vienna in 1871, the Tribune was aghast.

“We are suspicious of Thanksgiving ‘suppers,’ for dinner is the orthodox meal for the great day; and no man having done justice to an adequate Thanksgiving dinner could eat supper, even if he ‘stood up,’” railed the newspaper.

Furthermore, the journalist could not conceive of a Thanksgiving meal anywhere outside of the United States.  “They may have turkeys in Vienna—fair birds, perhaps, but not what would be called turkeys in Rhode island—but who for a moment can suppose that any cook in Austria knows how properly to roast a turkey?  Then if we pass to the still more important matter of pumpkin-pies, we are ready to declare, without fear of contradiction, that there is not one kitchen artist in all Germany who knows how to make that peculiarly American pie.”

Pie, as the editor of The New York Times pointed out, was a Thanksgiving must-have.
The matter of Thanksgiving pie concerned the editor of The New York Times.  “The Thanksgiving array of pie is usually of so varied, as well as lavish a nature, that it seems cunningly devised to entrap even the most innocent palate.  If mince-pie alone were set before a virtuous family, it is quite probable that many of its members would have the courage to turn in loathing from the deadly compound, but the thanksgiving mince-pie is always accompanied or preceded by lighter pies, in which weak-minded persons think they can indulge without injury.  The thoughtless matron—for thoughtlessness, and not deliberate wickedness, is indicated by the presence of Thanksgiving pie—urges her guests to take a little chicken-pie, assuring them that it cannot injure a child, and thus it cannot be politely declined.  The guest who tampers with the chicken-pie is inevitably lost.  The chicken-pie crust awakens an unholy hunger for fiercer viands, and when the meats are removed, he is ready and anxious for undiluted apple or pumpkin pie.  From that to mince-pie the transition is swift and easy, and in nine cases out of ten the man who attends a Thanksgiving dinner and is lured into touching chicken-pie abandons all self-restraint and deliveres himself up to the thralldom of a fierce longing for strong and undisguised mince-pie.”

Thanksgiving in New York in 1871 went beyond the steaming platters beneath the glowing chandeliers of comfortable rowhouses.   Victorians were acutely aware of the less fortunate and Thanksgiving was a time for charity. 

Thanksgiving dinner is laid out in the Home for the Friendless
On Randall’s Island the waifs in the House of Refuge, the Nursery and the Infant Hospital were provided with a hot meal.  “The three or four boxes of chickens and cakes sent up by the Commissioners were duly weighed and distributed to the different institutions,” reported The Tribune.  The 150 soldiers in the Soldier’s Home “many of whom are cripples,” said the newspaper, “enjoyed the extra viands with much zest.”   The aged and the poor in the asylums and Homes received meals provided by charitable organizations and church groups.  “The poor in the County Almshouse at Flatbush partook of a substantial dinner provided by the ladies of the Episcopal Churches of Brooklyn,” reported The New-York Tribune.   Inmates in the Raymond Street Jail and the Penitentiary in Flatbush “were treated to a substantial dinner of fowl and meats, provided by charitable citizens, and the iron hand of justice was lifted for the time, that they might keep Thanksgiving Day.”

This 1871 stereopticon slide was entitled "Beggar Boy's Thanksgiving"
It would seen that the only group to miss Thanksgiving dinner in 1871 were the prisoners of the Tombs—the Egyptian Revival prison downtown.  Although the Financial Panic of 1872 was a year away, the city’s budget was strained.  “Contrary to the usual custom, there was no special dinner prepared for the prisoners in the Tombs in consequence of a lack of funds, the Commissioners of Charities and Correction not feeling warranted in expending the sum necessary to procure the luxuries necessary for a Thanksgiving dinner for so many persons,” explained the newspaper.

European immigrants quickly absorbed the American tradition.  The Tribune reported that year that “Among the Germans the day was celebrated in the customary manner by a series of social festivities including balls, musical entertainments, and banquets under the auspices of vocal and musical associations and the Turner and Schutzen organizations.”

A Victorian cigarette card depicted a comely servant girl and equally attractive roast turkey.
By the onset of evening on Thanksgiving Day 1871 guests returned home, nurses nudged the children up the stairs, and kitchen servants worked over turkey carcasses that would be transformed into soup the following day.  The uniquely American holiday had developed all the trappings and traditions familiar to us today—except for the football games.

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