Year The 1800’s; Time Thanksgiving
The Urban/City Thanksgiving
If you’re eating out at one of New York City’s restaurants this Thanksgiving, you’re actually taking part in a long-standing tradition that goes back to the 19th century.
During the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made the third Thursday of November a national day to pause and give thanks with his 1863 Thanksgiving Day proclamation, building on what was already an official holiday in several states such as New York.
By the late 1800s the holiday — with the turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie that most Americans now think of — had become ubiquitous enough that some of Manhattan’s most elegant hotels and clubs were offering special menus to mark the day.
The Murray Hill Hotel at 40th Street and Park Avenue made choosing Thanksgiving dinner easy in 1891 with a pared down list of options.
The meal started with cherrystone clams, and then patrons chose either a bisque of oyster-crabs or consummé of chicken for the soup course. The main course of Philadelphia turkey stuffed with chestnuts and served with cauliflower au gratin would fit on modern tables, but the saddle of English mutton with sautéed Brussells sprouts, grilled sweetbreads, and suprême breast of partridge à la Diane are less familiar.
In other Urban and/Cities One might have eaten an elegant Thanksgiving dinner — served between 5 and 8 p.m. — in the dining room. It started with a selection of consumée quinelles or cream of artichoke soup, followed by a fish course with broiled kingfish or Kennebec Salmon.
The main event would have been Vermont turkey with chestnut stuffing and cranberry sauce, or selectins of roast and game like prime rib, sweetbread braisé, and broiled quail on toast. The dessert course included New England plum pudding with brandy and hard sauce, angel, pound, fruit or almond cake, and, of course, pumpkin pie.
Don’t worry though. Dessert included the familiar New England pumpkin pie as well as mince pie, “fancy” ice cream, cakes and a cup of coffee.
Note: In the Southern urban/cities it would more than likely be Sweet Potato Pie
Rural and Small Towns Thanksgiving
Family get-togethers at Thanksgiving are (hopefully) a time of enjoying a great feast, being thankful and watching football. If you’re hosting, it’s wonderful, of course, but challenging — lots of dishes to make and lots of dishes to wash. By the time you clean up the kitchen and turn on the dishwasher, you’re weary from the work.
But one thing is for certain — our apron-ed ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries wouldn’t feel a bit sorry for current-day cooks. Imagine what they would have given to have frost-free refrigerators, convection ovens and dishwashers with a “power scrub” cycle.
If you’d like to compare the two Thanksgivings, to get a hands-on sense of what it was like to create a holiday meal back in the country’s early days, without all the modern conveniences, you can.
Think about all that goes before the grand holiday meal— preserving the harvest, storing crops and, yes, processing the animals that are cooked, including rendering tallow (fat) for candle making. I am tired just thinking about it.
Thanksgiving meal of the period included a rich assortment of simple, seasonal foods, with ample vegetables, wild game, fish and other meats — and, of course, several pies. This year’s menu: Hearth-roasted turkey with bread dressing, winter squash, boiled potatoes and onions, buttermilk biscuits with fresh churned butter, cranberry relish, ginger cake with whipped cream, coffee, tea and raspberry shrub. It’s BYOB.
The day was about sharing in the spirit of abundance with family and friends along with prayer and worship. Singing, storytelling and cracking nuts around the fire after dinner were commonplace.
Cooking terms you might not be familiar with from the 1800’s:
Scotch collop: Small slice of meat
Fricassee: Cut-up pieces of chicken or rabbit, dressed and fried
Haunch: Rear or hind cut of meat
Eating knife: Utensil with a rounded end and wide spatulate blade, not used to cut the food
Dutch oven: Cast-iron bake kettle with lid
Peel: Cast-iron tool used to shovel coals
Colonial shrub: Concentrated fruit, sugar and vinegar beverage
Spider pan: Cast-iron frying pan with three legs
Fool: Fruit and whipped cream dessert
The biggest fact about Thanksgiving in the nineteenth century is it became an annual holiday in 1863. However, the first instance of a Thanksgiving Day during the nineteenth century was in 1815 when President James Madison proclaimed a day to celebrate the end of the War of 1812. A couple years later, in 1817, the state of New York became the first to proclaim Thanksgiving as a holiday.
After 1817, the requests for a day of thanks became quiet, until a lady named Sarah Josepha Hale began a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday for the United States. At the time, America only had a couple national holidays, which were Independence Day and George Washington’s birthday; Hale felt America could use a holiday in the fall. Sarah’s quest to make Thanksgiving a holiday began in 1846 with letters written to Governors, Congress, and Presidents. Hale took her quest further as a writer for “Goody’s Lady Book” and delivered articles and editorials about Thanksgiving.
Once the Civil War broke out in April of 1861, Hale felt the push to create a national holiday was more important. She continued to write her articles but knew that she needed to have a chance to write to President Abraham Lincoln. However, due to the Civil War, her previous ways of writing to any Governor or Congress would not work as the nation was now separated by war. It was not until after Abraham Lincoln declared his second day of thanks in 1863, with the first being in 1862 after a few Union Victories that Hale decided to try to contact President Abraham Lincoln personally.
Hale first contacted former Senator of New York and Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward about making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Seward responded by giving Hale to go to privately write to Lincoln about her idea for making Thanksgiving a national holiday in hopes of trying to unite the nation. Whether Abraham Lincoln was already working on creating a national holiday for Thanksgiving or not, he approved Hale’s request and, in 1863, made the last Thursday in November Thanksgiving Day.
It is also in the nineteenth century that we start finding more documentation about what a Thanksgiving meal consisted of. While the nineteenth-century meal still consisted of the more traditional food we think of presently, such as turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing; it also consisted of some foods we would not presently call traditional, such as stewed prunes, peach pickles, and chicken pot pie.
Cost of Thanksgiving Dinner in the 1890’s
1889 – $1.00
New York: From an article in the New York Herald (11-24-1889) “Many Men of Many Menus ——- Thanksgiving Dinners from Varying Historical and Social Aspects —– How Our Bachelor Mayor Will Dine —– Old New England Modes of Feasting – Thanksgiving Day as Observed in the South – A new York Swell Thanksgiving Dinner – A Menu for Most of Us – A Dollar Thanksgiving Family Feast” Only one menu included the price of the dinner.
$1.00 Menu for a family of six
Boiled Chicken with a border of rice
Beans, Spanish Style
1891 – $23.99
Newburyport, Massachusetts: From the cookbook of Mrs. R. Lyman Winship, published in A Cargo of Good Food from Newburyport, Massachusetts
Thanksgiving Dinner 1891 at the home of Mrs. Winship, for seventeen people
2 Turkeys: 11 pounds and 10 pounds
2 Chickens Pies (four chickens of which I made two pies – the crust made with one large cup of butter and the same cup two-thirds full of lard and the rest butter)
Cranberry (two quarts)
Celery (four heads)
Mrs. Putnam’s Christmas Plum Pudding
Peach Ice Cream (made with two quarts cream, one jar of my peaches and two and a half dozen macaroons pounded with extra sugar, and one pint of milk.)
2 White Mountain Cakes (One loaf plain and one with fruit)
One dozen Havana Oranges
One dozen Tangerines
One basket Tokay Grapes
One basket Concords [Grapes]
One dozen Bananas – apples and pears [likely one dozen each fruit]
One jar Prunes
Two pounds Figs
One Dutch Cheese
One pound Water Crackers
Two pounds Water Wafers
One bunch of Raisins from S.S. Pierce (tied with pink ribbon)
Five pounds of Shellbarks
Two quart bottles of Olives
Four pounds of mixed nuts
One and a half pound of shelled almonds (which I salted)
Four bottles of claret wine
The whole expense of the dinner aside from the claret wine was $23.99.
1896 – $5.00
From The Daily News Cookbook in Chicago, Illinois
Contributed by Mrs. P. B. Gehr, Riverside, Ill.
Bisque of Oysters
Planked Whitefish, lemon and walnut sauce
Roast Turkey with chestnut filling
Mashed white potatoes
Baked sweet potatoes
Mince Pie, Pumpkin Pie
The dinner served at a home in Newburyport is quite similar to the menus published in the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book (See Menus). There was one exception, there were no pies instead there was an abundance of fresh fruit. The bananas, oranges, tangerines, and grapes were all imported, only the apples and pears would have been locally grown. The fresh fruit may represent wealth verses fruit pies which may have represented common folk’s food. Given that, it is interesting to note the lady of the house said “I made Mrs. Putnam’s Christmas Plum Pudding” indicating she made the pudding herself.
$23.99 may seem like a low price for a dinner but for its time it was extravagant compared with the $5.00 dinner. The Daily News Cookbook was “Designed to Furnish “Good Living,” in Appetizing Variety, at an Expense Not to Exceed $500 a Year for a Family of Five …” In its preface, it stated: “The three Holiday menus – New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas – are an exception in the matter of expense. The dinners on these occasions are arranged for ten persons, and a cost of five dollars was permitted.” That was not $5.00 per person it was for the whole dinner. At $5.00 for ten people (50 cents per person) it would cost $8.50 for seventeen people. The $23.99 for seventeen people was triple that, and more because it did not include the wine. On the extreme opposite end of the social ladder is the $1.00 dinner for six people which breaks down to 15 cents per person.
Thanksgiving had truly become a holiday for every United States citizen irregardless of social status. People found a way to celebrate with a feast. Sometimes as with the poor soldiers it was but a spoonful of fresh food. The lady with a family of six who had to economize found a way to serve a feast for $1.00. At $5.00 a family could indulge in a fancy upscale type feast. The $23.99 cost purchased an extravagant and lavish feast, with unheard of quantities of fresh fruit in November.