Thanksgiving in the 1880s

A vintage Thanksgiving postcard is pictured. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

For  “Harlow’s Wooden Man,” 1966

With the approaching observance of Thanksgiving, it is interesting to note how this national holiday was celebrated three-quarters of a century ago (now more than a century and a quarter). House and Home, A Complete Housewife’s Guide by Marion Harland, published in 1889, covers all household worries, hospitality, “the soft speech” and “our baby” to name a few, in addition to menus and recipes. This book is most enlightening and certainly brings to the reader quiet chuckles and nostalgia for the gracious living indulged in by those of a former generation.

Introducing the chapter on the Thanksgiving Dinner the author states, “Whatever may be the press of duties that on other days drives the business of eating into a gobble and a race…take time on Thanksgiving day to dine. If I were a religious and civil dictator for this one day, I would ordain certain ceremonies in cottage as in palace…” Her sermon-grace is very simple and direct “All this has God given us!”

The setting of the table is described very precisely and included first of all a “fair cloth” upon the table. Only the best china and silver were to be used, glossy (not starched) napkins, individual salts, goblets, butter plates, and an attractive centerpiece.

Next the menu! The meal began with a good soup followed by fish. In connection with this latter course, only the fork should be used – never the knife. No vegetable, unless it be potatoes in some form, would be served at this time. The next offering, leading up to the main dish, included chicken pates or croquettes, accompanied by stewed salsify (oyster plant) and pickles.

Then follows the central theme and focal point of the dinner – the Thanksgiving turkey! Quoting the author, “He (the turkey) should be well stuffed, carefully basted, judiciously turned from time to time…rich in coloring, done to a turn, but nowhere scorched.” It is suggested that the bird be surrounded with small fried sausages interspersed with celery tops. He was to be accompanied by a sauce boat of giblet gravy, a dish of cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes. A salver of crisp celery was then to be passed and the diners were in business.

Following this course, wild game such as quail, grouse, or venison would be served, along with a salad of lettuce with a dressing of salt, white sugar, pepper, oil and vinegar, tossed at the table. The author states, “Salad dressing at table is a graceful, housewifely accomplishment which every woman should practice.” The next items to appear upon the table were to be crackers, cheese, and olives, and last of all, the pumpkin pie was brought forth to conclude the feast.

It was advised to allow the children a modest share in table-talk, a fine art cultivated over the years. The housewife was warned to spare no pains to make her fetes landmarks in the memory of her children. “The stately progress of a dinner…is an educational step and a solemn joy in the recollection.”

The entire key to the enjoyment of the festive dinner, such as here described, was eating slowly and delighting in each course, in addition to indulging in cheerful chat, described as “the best sauce of the meal.” Probably the wisest fact brought out by the author is, “if we dallied longer over the family meal, we would pay fewer serious calls to the doctor’s office and apothecary’s shop.”