Thanksgiving Holidays Through the Centuries

How much do you know about Thanksgiving Day? Did you know that it didn’t become a fixed national holiday in the United States until President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress declaring the 4th Thursday in November to be the official Thanksgiving Day holiday?

Did you know that settlers in Berkeley Hundred, Charles City County, Virginia celebrated a day of thanksgiving in 1619, two years before the not well documented, but much more famous Pilgrims’ thanksgiving day in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts?

These early days of Thanksgiving were more tied to religion – giving thanks to God for a safe journey across the ocean and for providing ample harvests – rather than today’s concept of a “holiday.”

I decided to take a stroll through Chronicling America to see what newspapers of the day had to say about Thanksgiving.

The earliest notice I could find was the 1794 proclamation of the governor of Vermont declaring that the public day of Thanksgiving was to be observed on Thursday, November 13. However, that same year, there was a notice in the Gazette of the United States and the Daily Evening Advertiser, published in Philadelphia with the following announcement:


Annual Thanksgiving, November 29, 1794

On Thanksgiving Day in 1800, Nathanael Emmons gave a lengthy sermon, thanking God for all that was provided.

In 1850, Abel McEwen gave a sermon at the First Congregational Church in New London, Connecticut, which I won’t post here because it is 16 pages long! I imagine his parishioners were ready for a tasty feast after sitting through that.

By the Civil War era, newspapers began to mention Thanksgiving Day in a less religious context; one mention was made of an attack on that day during a battle.However, there were still mentions of sermons, including those in 1859, which spoke of the actions of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.


Alexandria Gazette

A Thanksgiving poem was written by G.P. Lathrop and published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1876:

Two years later, the poem was followed by George W. Morgan’s and John Keynton’s National Hymn of Thanksgiving, but I guess it never caught on because I can’t find the lyrics to it anywhere.

As the 1800s came to a close, Thanksgiving Day had already begun to transform into the modern day celebration. In fact, there were even political cartoons relating to the day.


J. Keppler, 1883

Thanks were being given for what the country had NOT received, portrayed in the artwork on the wall – natural disasters, political unrest, epidemics, etc.

Newspapers had become much more plentiful in local communities at the turn of the 20th century. The ads for the upcoming Thanksgiving aren’t all that different from those we see today.


Donating to the Needy
St. Johnsbury, Vermont New Caledonian

Costumed children appeared in photo advertising.


Roast Turkey Dinner Sign – 40 cents!
Bain News Service, 1910

By 1914, holiday advertisements were looking quite modern:


New Ulm, Minnesota Specials

I’ll end with this fun 1918 ad from The Alliance Herald in Box Butte County, Nebraska.


Get your home made chili and ice cream for Thanksgiving!

This ad says it all – non-traditional foods like ice cream and chili are on offer. A menu suggestion includes a recipe for apple-prune stuffing. We are reminded to be thankful for the local cleaner and tailor who are “keeping you neat,” and the ubiquitous fruit cakes have made their appearance. There is even a reminder of the Great War, which had just ended, as War Savings Stamps could be delivered to the home.

I love looking through old newspapers and ads, especially those that relate to holidays. Now, I think I better get going on my own Thanksgiving meal shopping.

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