|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)
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.
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
|This 1871 stereopticon slide was entitled "Beggar Boy's Thanksgiving"
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.