Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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@ElizaBTweetin: November 27, 1872: Thanksgiving in the 19th Century

Posted on November 27, 2013

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Riley Swales '17

Like many of us, Eliza Baylies Wheaton began preparing her house for visitors two days before Thanksgiving. The holiday was celebrated at her home in 1872, and she busily organized her home and set up extra beds for her visiting relatives to sleep in. Since transportation was not as advanced as it is today, it was common for her relatives to stay multiple nights every time they came to visit.  She notes in her diary that she had a few of her close relatives over for Thanksgiving dinner and that she had a pleasant time with them.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6e/The_First_Thanksgiving_cph.3g04961.jpgAfter the Civil War, social reformists decided to revive the Thanksgiving holiday as a way to promote national unity, this is how the original dinner shared between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians became romanticized. In 1863, Thanksgiving became a national holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it the national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Nowadays, Thanksgiving is one of the more major holidays of the year, although the holiday has changed a bit over the years some traditions remain intact.

thanksgiving-19th-century-grangerThe average Thanksgiving in the 19th century started the day before where people would hold a raffle to win prizes. The prizes were usually some kind of food product to use the following day for Thanksgiving. In most cases, the top prize for the raffle was a turkey or a goose. On Thanksgiving morning there was usually a shooting match where the targets consisted of birds, such as: turkeys, chickens, and geese. Later in the morning, families would attend church services together and afterwards would congregate together to have a Thanksgiving meal.

thanksgivingFamilies in the 19th century celebrated with foods that we would recognize today as traditional Thanksgiving fare like turkey, jellied cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, apple pie, white bread, pudding, stuffing, and other items all appeared on their Thanksgiving table. However the average 19th century family also ate dishes that the average family today wouldn’t think of eating for Thanksgiving, these foods include: ham, peach pickles, oysters, coleslaw, tomato ketchup, stewed prunes, chicken pie, and pigeon pie. These foods are no longer traditionally consumed on Thanksgiving, causing us to realize that taste changes over time as some dishes become less popular or go out of style.

Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln, a famous cookbook author, who attended Wheaton and was good friends with Eliza Baylies Wheaton, was the author of the book Carving and Serving. This work held similar recipes to the meals that Eliza likely prepared for her relatives. Below is a recipe for roast turkey, one of the most popular foods served on Thanksgiving, which is found on page 33 to page 35 of Mary Lincoln’s cookbook.


This recipe may be familiar to you as it appeared in another cookbook, by famous Boston cookbook author, Fannie Farmer. Farmer was actually Lincoln’s student at the Boston Cooking School prior to publishing her own cookbook. While there she was very studious and paid very close attention to the recipes she was taught how to make. Later, she went on to publish a popular cookbook and displaced Mary Lincoln as a leader in Boston’s cooking elite. Because there are no copyright restrictions on recipes, Farmer’s adapted recipes were not illegal, and she was not sanctioned for reusing Lincoln’s recipes.

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