An Out-of-Home Experience: Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age

Photo Credit: The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Jennie A. Brownscombe, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, The Netherlands. Note the painting depicts a Thanksgiving that is not family-oriented, held outdoors rather than inside the home, including a large and diverse group of people beyond the immediate family. Hohum/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old)

“‘The original Thanksgiving dinners [were] an ‘out of home’ experience…’” (as quoted in Hanc, par. 12)

After having been away for a month, I’m happy to be back blogging and writing!

I came back just in time for National Novel Writing Month, or, as it’s affectionately called, NaNoWriMo. For those who may not have heard of it, this is a month-long challenge for writers or anyone who’s always wanted to write a novel started by a couple of guys in Silicon Valley in the 1990’s. For the month of November, anyone is invited to sign up (free) on the NaNoWriMo site for the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. There are inspirational articles, groups, forums, and as much support as you could wish for to aid people to reach this challenging goal.

So what does NaNoWriMo have to do with Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age?

I was happy to dive right into NaNo when I returned from my trip with an idea that’s been in my mind for about eight months now — to transform my current literary work-in-progress, the Waxwood Series, from a contemporary psychological fiction series to a historical fiction trilogy retitled The Waxwood Trilogy. I’ve been playing around with an idea for a novella that is an offshoot of the trilogy based on a short story I wrote that is the current freebie with my newsletter sign-up. The short story traces the funeral of the matriarch of a wealthy San Francisco family and the sort of family secrets that such solemn occasions bring forth. The novella I’m working on for NaNo takes that same idea but expands it into a journey of unearthing family myths for Vivian Alderdice, Penelope’s granddaughter.

The novella takes place in 1893. And so the time of year (Thanksgiving in the United States which is less than a week away) prompted me to ask the question, “How would the Alderdices have celebrated Thanksgiving, if they celebrated it at all?”

It turns out the Gilded Age aristocracy did indeed celebrate Thanksgiving but not in the way we do now. When we think of this holiday, we think of a large oblong table crowded with food, fall colored table settings, lots of kids and grandparents and aunts and uncles. That is, we think of family. Rosy cheeks, enough grins to make a clown jealous, laughter and fond family jokes and memories. Our vision of Thanksgiving is like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration and it’s no wonder. As John Hanc reminds us in his article “When Thanksgiving Meant a Fancy Meal Out on the Town”, the idealized Thanksgiving Rockwell portrayed has stuck like flypaper in the American psyche:

“Published on the cover of the March 6, 1943 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, the painting depicts a kindly-looking, white-haired patriarch and matriarch standing at the head of the table, as hungry family members—their smiling faces only partially visible—eagerly anticipate the mouth-watering turkey dinner that’s about to be served.” (par. 9)

But the aristocrats of the Gilded Age, both “old money” and “nouveau riche” weren’t quite so committed to the idea of a family Thanksgiving. In fact, the opposite seems to have been true: “[W]ealthy Americans celebrated their Thanksgivings not in the confines of the home with family, but at fancy hotels and restaurants, with extravagant, haute cuisine dinners and entertainments” (Hanc, par. 5). It was not unusual for Gilded Agers to feast on non-traditional Thanksgiving fair, such as oysters, turtle soup, foie graise, prime rib, and Petit fours. I was curious to see what my fictional family might have had in the mid-1890s for Thanksgiving at one of San Francisco’s finest hotels, so fine that even Mark Twain consented to stay there, the Occidental Hotel. I came up with the following 1891 Thanksgiving dinner menu:

Photo Credit: Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “THANKSGIVING DINNER [held by] OCCIDENTAL HOTEL [at] “SAN FRANCISCO, CA” (HOTEL)”The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1891.

My high-school level French can pick out green beans and pumpkin pie on the menu but there seems to be no turkey and cranberry sauce to be had.

The idea that wealthy Gilded Agers were simply not as family-oriented as we are today as their reason for shunning the Rockwell portrait of a family dinner comes to mind but this need not be the case. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, this period in American history was given the name the Gilded Age because of its love of excess and commercial delights, it’s “over-the-top” feasting on life, especially those who could afford it. A modest family dinner at home simply did not fit in with their lifestyle. However, an extraordinary dinner at a fine hotel did. As Stephen O’Neil, assistant director of the Pilgrim’s Hall Museum points out, “‘Thanksgiving is very much a celebration of abundance, so [Gilded Age high society] sort of used that as an excuse to promote these extravagantly large dinners’” (as quoted in Hanc, par. 16). It would also have been an opportunity for men and women to see and be seen, to show off the latest Paris fashions and expensive jewels.

All this might seem petty, but Hanc reminds us that the concept of a family Thanksgiving was foreign to the originators of the celebration as well — the Pilgrims. Kathleen Wahl, a 17th century food expert and historian, tells us that for the Pilgrims, “‘[you had] about 50 English people whose families were torn apart, by death or distance… Family [were] your neighbors… whoever [happened] to be in the situation with you’” (As quoted in Hanc, par. 8). Hanc cites Prohibition in the 1920’s as well as the Great Depression in the 1930’s as reasons why the elaborate Thanksgiving festivities of the Gilded Age fell out of favor. That might be, but I’m guessing it was more about the post-World War II era in the late-40’s made the concept of family more precious and politically important in America. This is more why Rockwell’s illustration became so engrained into the American psyche and thus, Thanksgiving became associated with the more intimate portrait of family.

Works Cited

Hanc, John. “When Thanksgiving Meant a Fancy Meal Out on the Town.” 25 November 2013. Web. 14 November 2018.

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