Monday, November 25, 2013

Celebrating a Mid-19th Century Thanksgiving

You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead— ZAP!!!----You suddenly find yourself transported through time...and you realize you are now in November of 1863, and Thanksgiving is nigh! 
Just what is that strange apparition in the sky? Could it be some sort of time-space continuum?

What to do...? What to do...? 
First, a few fun facts to get you pepared, then we'll get into the celebration itself.
So let's begin with President Abraham Lincoln's association with Thanksgiving:
This fall harvest festival had been celebrated mainly in New England on different dates in different states. But Sarah Josepha Hale, a pro Union magazine editor (and author of the nursery rhyme 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,') urged President Lincoln, through a letter she wrote, to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. The letter convinced him to support legislation establishing a day of Thanks as a national holiday, and on October 3, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed:
"I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."

(Understand that President George Washington gave the new Nation its first Thanksgiving Proclamation back on October 3, 1789 and set aside the date of November 26 as the 'official' date of celebration. More on that HERE...)
Corn shocks guide you up to the farm house...
Thanksgiving is the one national American holiday set aside solely for giving thanks to God for the abundance He has given us. The notations by William Bradford and Edward Winslow - who were there back in 1621 - state as such, as do the original proclamations by the U.S. Congress in 1782, the various proclamations Washington made during his presidency, as well as others made by John Adams, James Madison, and, as noted above, Abraham Lincoln.
And that was how our ancestors celebrated this blessed day.
Fall Harvest Time Bounty
That being said, let us continue on our 1863 Thanksgiving celebration. 
With the harvest in, the end of November was, for many farmers, a special season of feasting, and for those who lived during that time, the holiday had much more preparation than the modern last-minute-run-to-the-grocery-store-to-get-everything-you-need-for-Thanksgiving-dinner
In fact, some of the preparation didn't have much to do with the meal at all.
The general droving season ended by the end of November. The roads, by this late autumn period, were usually dry, making them perfect to drive cattle to market (hence the name 'droving' - they brought the cattle to market in droves). A cloud of dust and a thunder of animal noises heralded the approach of a driven herd as much as five miles away. The money made from the cattle was plentiful, and thus, helped to ensure a bountiful feast.
And, if you read my posting on autumn life in the 19th century, you will know that early spring and late fall on the farm were the times for soap-making. But since soap was made mostly from grease and fat, November's butchering-time made autumn the more popular season for the chore.

Butchering was a task for a true craftsman while others watched and learned and helped wherever they could.

Rendering lard to make soap. The odor is anything but pleasant!
Additionally, the posting above speaks on candle-making, which was done mainly in late November as well, for it had to be cold enough for quick hardening and followed close after 'killing time.' (It was usually animal waste fat that made candle tallow.)
November was also chestnut time, and boys from all over would head toward their nearest chestnut tree to collect the treats to be roasted over an open fire. Because of the ever-popular modern Christmas carol, "The Christmas Song - Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire", we tend to think of chestnuts as a Christmas delight. But that was for the warmer climates. Those in the Northern, Midwestern and New England states generally ate them closer to Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving Day you’ll want to be awake by five o’clock in the morning to get the range going good and hot, for it must last the rest of the day. And it takes an hour or longer for it to heat properly. 
Also, rooms not normally used were opened and heated, and fires had to be started if the day was particularly cold. As Harriet Beecher Stowe noted: "The best room, on this occasion, was thrown wide open, and its habitual coldness was warmed by the burning down of a great stack of hickory logs, which had been heaped up unsparingly since morning."
The 'best room' in the farm house - the formal parlor.
Preparing food in the 19th century was not simply a matter of making ingredients palatable. It also required a staggering arrange of skills such as plucking feathers from fowl, butchering animals large and small, making bread, milking, making cheese, grinding corn and preparing the other vegetables, chopping kindling, keeping a fire burning indefinitely, adjusting the burners and temperature of the stove...
This tom certainly was lucky this year. We'll see about next year...

Now, you do know how to test the stove for the correct temperature, right?
Well, this is how it was explained to me: you test the cooking/baking temperature by putting your hand in the oven.
Yes, you read it right.
If you put your hand inside the oven and you can keep it there without too much discomfort, it is not nearly hot enough for anything. But, if you can keep it in only a short time, maybe to the count of six or seven, well then you have a good baking fire. But, if you cannot keep your hand inside the oven for more than a moment – in and out quickly - now you have a good fire for frying. There are also the flues and dampers to help control the temperature. 
The stove must be good and hot to cook all of the food for the Thanksgiving Holiday!
If you do happen to want to bake, throw a log into the firebox. It will give a longer, more even heat. If you want to fry up a meal, that’s where these smaller bits of wood come in handy to make a hot fire quickly. 
The larger the piece of wood, the more even your heat will be.
The oil lamp provides much needed light as the cooking begins
All hands are needed in the food preparation. The work seems never ending for these ladies.
Meals, including harvest meals, were built around ingredients in either fresh or preserved form on the farm or in the shops in the nearest town. And any part of the meal that could be prepared the night before was put in order, that there might be "as little manual labor in store for the day of the feast as possible, and only a few hands might be detained from attending church." (an anonymous note from 1842).

And even though the day's busiest activities were based around this 'feast,' the daily chores still had to be done: animals still needed to be fed and cows milked. 
A farmer's work is never done...
...and neither is the work for the women of the house; there's nary an extra spot available on the stove for another pot. They have been cooking like the Dickens!

Let's take a few minutes to hear the sights and sounds of an 1880s Thanksgiving (click the picture to watch the video):

Finally, the food is done and ready to be served: roasted blue slate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, fried sauerkraut, carrots, white bread, mashed squash, two types of pickles, canned peaches, cranberries, and, somewhere out of the picture is a mincemeat pie and a pumpkin pie.
The centerpiece, of course, is the roasted turkey. Unlike modern turkeys with mostly white meat, the domestic turkey breeds of the 19th century, such as the Blue Slate turkey here, were lean and provided far less white meat. You also will not brine the turkey; you will instead lard it with bacon and slowly roast it in the oven.

The dining room would normally be the room where the family would eat. However, the Firestone Farm is a historic home, therefore only allowing for food to be eaten in the busy kitchen. But normally, only the finest "napery and ware" would be used on such an occasion.
It's difficult to have patience while awaiting such a feast as this!
The food was all piled together in jovial abundance upon the table.
And as soon as the blessing was said, the family enjoyed a feast like no other!

Preparing the mince meat pie for baking
In it goes!
The pumpkin pie fresh out of the oven. 
Thanksgiving dinner may be over, but there was no time for sitting just yet - dishes had to be done. "Can someone please go out to the pump and get clean water for me?"

The ladies of the house were plum wore out after all of their hard work making and cooking the fine Thanksgiving meal.

 After the great meal was eaten, it was time to enjoy the company that had assembled from near and far. Though some women remained in the kitchen to organize the leftovers and begin the dishwashing and a few of the men slipped out to do their evening barn chores, this after dinner period was a time for 'frolicking,' Fires were built up and candles and oil lamps were lit as the evening darkness fell. Toasts, songs, and games were carried out. 
Some families were lucky enough to have a pump organ to entertain the aunts and uncles who visited upon this special day
(and I was lucky enough to hear the organ played this day!).
Blindman's bluff and hunt the slipper were two such games for children, while quieter games more suitable for adults were played by the older family members. If there was snow, a sleigh ride was almost a given.
Speaking of sleigh rides, a Christmas carol that certainly has its roots in Thanksgiving was written by James Lord Pierpont and published under the title "One Horse Open Sleigh" in the autumn of 1857. In 1859, the title was revised to "Jingle Bells." Even though it is now associated with Christmas, it was actually originally written to be sung for Thanksgiving. Remember - before it became a national holiday, Thanksgiving was celebrated at different times in the fall months, so the harvest feast could had been celebrated later in the autumn when the snow had already fallen.
Original sheet music.
Many folks believe that the jingle bells heard during the snowy season are for Christmas because of this ever-popular song. That is truly not the case: jingle bells were put on sleighs for safety reasons. The horse's clip-clopping usually heard along the roads are muffled greatly by the snow-covered ground of late fall and winter, and the head covering the folks wore also muffled the sound of the on-coming beasts and carriages, making the pedestrian pert-near deaf. This could be a dangerous situation, except for the higher-pitched sounds of the jingle bells warning the pedestrian to move out of the way. Just as horns are required on the modern day motor vehicles, bells were once a must for snow-covered travel on sleighs. "Keeping to the Right" upon hearing the jingling of a sleigh was the rule then as it is for automobiles today. 
The rhythm of the tune mimics that of a trotting horse's bells.
It didn't take long, however, for this secular ditty to join the growing myriad of carols for Christmas.
(By the way, "Over the River and Through the Woods" from 1844 was also written for Thanksgiving. This, too, is a 'sleighing song' - "The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through white and drifted snow.") 
Some family members enjoyed a quiet respite in the sitting room before the evening's affairs

The opportunity to spend time with these fine people was a great one for me, and I certainly appreciate the kindness I was shown.

Although it seems as if much has changed for the Thanksgiving holiday from the 19th century to our modern times, it really hasn't. Oh, sure, the preparations have diminished greatly in the last 150 years, but the general gaiety of the day was basically the same then as it is now (unless you're one of those people who like to go shopping on that day!). 
I enjoyed researching for this post to help us (especially living historians) to understand - and possibly even recreate - a Thanksgiving during the mid-19th century, and I hope this posting took you away from our modern times, even if only for a short while. 
By the way, not too long ago I researched and wrote about a colonial-18th century Thanksgiving, and if you are interested, please click HERE.

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I have to give a major THANK YOU to my friends (and they are my friends!) who work at Firestone Farm inside Greenfield Village where each photo in this post was taken. The presenters put up with my continual excursions there, camera in tow, getting in their way, asking questions, and getting them to pose for my incessant picture taking.  And yet, never do they make me feel as if I'm a pest - on the contrary, they have this tendency to make me feel as welcome as ever.
You all are the BEST (and since most of you also work at the other homes in the Village, I can say that)!

Other information in this posting came directly from numerous sources, including:
Living History Magazine from Greenfield Village 
Seasons of America Past by Eric Sloane
Our Own Snug Fireside by Jane C. Nylander
This internet source (general overview)
This internet source (Washington)
This internet source (1782 Congress)
This internet source (Adams & Madison)
This internet source (Lincoln)

Oh! and click HERE to learn a bit about Thanksgiving celebrations of the colonial period, including the infamous one that took place in 1621 in Plymouth

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I recently read on various internet sites where the U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving is becoming popular in London, England. One British article stated, in part, that the locals could "sample the truly authentic US thanksgiving cuisine...with turkey, pumpkin pie, and sweet potato mash, with a choice of dishes at each course."

Another advertised:

Celebrate Thanksgiving in London with American food and fun!

The American holiday of Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

In Britain, while it's not an official holiday, lots of American expats and tourists, as well as their friends and relatives, like to mark the occasion by coming together to eat a traditional Thanksgiving feast. 

Festive food for Thanksgiving includes turkey, pumpkin pie, chowder and anything with an American theme.

Thanksgiving menus are available on the day from lots of London hotels, pubs, and restaurants. 

Another said this
Thanksgiving isn't a celebration in the UK - the nearest equivalent is Harvest Festival where we give our thanks for food and the years' harvest. With so many Americans living in the UK and the close alliance this country feels for its American cousins, Thanksgiving in the UK is certainly gaining momentum.
A surprising number of restaurants around the country serve a Thanksgiving dinner and there are a number of festivals taking place. If you prefer to stay at home and prepare dinner yourself, here are some recipes and info to help you on your way to Thanksgiving in the UK.

And the last one I pulled (though there are plenty more) I found to be the most historically interesting:
A Pilgrims' UK Thanksgiving in Plymouth, England
In what looks suspiciously like an attack of "Come back, all is forgiven", the people of Plymouth, in Devon, England, hold Thanksgiving celebrations to commemorate their Mayflower and Transatlantic heritage.
The event seemed to fade away for a while but a group of enthusiasts revived it. Even the Plymouth Lord Mayor is involved in the planning and the new Plymouth Waterfront Manager also joined in to keep this event going. In 2013, the event will take on a new look with a Thanksgiving Weekend Festival from November 28 to December 31 along the Plymouth Barbican - the waterfront area from which the Mayflower sailed.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!



The BUTT'RY and BOOK'RY said...

HAPPY THANKSGIVING to you BOTH!! And your family!! :-D

Dawn Eggers said...

I just love these posts! Thank you! Blessings...

Historical Ken said...

Thank you both! Happy Thanksgiving!