Thanksgiving through the decades

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

MARQUETTE — Although Thanksgiving did not become an official federal holiday until 1863, when President Lincoln set the last Thursday in November as a day of “thanksgiving and praise,” Michigan’s first official celebration was much earlier.

In 1824, 13 years before Michigan even achieved statehood, Territorial Gov. Lewis Cass declared Nov. 25 to be a day of Thanksgiving.

And although the first holidays in Marquette were primarily religious, it did not take long for the elements we associate with Thanksgiving today–turkeys, football, holiday travel, and even Christmas shopping–to become well established in Marquette County.

Ellen Harlow, the daughter of Amos Harlow, one of Marquette’s founders, kept many diaries over the years, copies of many of them are now at Marquette Regional History Center. She was 15 years old on November 28, 1860, when she noted that the last boat had come in with supplies for the winter.

The next day she wrote “For the morning we all attended a Thanksgiving sermon at the Methodist church. In the afternoon rode to Grandmother’s took dinner and reached home at five o’clock in the evening Father and I attended the prayer meeting.”

But by 1873 the secular Thanksgiving spirit was already taking hold. That year the Mining Journal printed the full text of governor John Bagley’s Thanksgiving Proclamation which concluded, “Let us by acts of charity to His suffering children at home and in sister states show that our gratitude is of the heart and sincere. “Reject not the supplication of the afflicted; neither turn away thy face from a poor man.“‘ Right below that solemn proclamation, however, was the “Local Cinders column, which advised:

“Begin to lay by your pennies for the holidays.

Put a blanket on your horse when you leave him standing outdoors.

You merchants who have holiday goods must advertise if you expect to sell them this season.

Thanksgiving day approaches. Heads of families should lay in a stock of pain killers, peppermint, etc.”

By 1880 local merchants were fully appreciating the admonition to advertise if they wished to sell goods. There was still a “Thanksgiving Proclamation” on the front page of the November 18th Mining Journal, but this time it was an ad for Steel and Lobdell. “Never before in the history of the grocery trade have the people of Marquette had placed at their disposal such a magnificent stock of fine imported and domestic table luxuries. Prices as low as consistent with good quality and honest quantity.”

And, even though it was still before Thanksgiving, Hager and Johnson was advertising, “Right now we are ready for business with an immense stock of Christmas gifts.

Furniture of all kinds and household decoration.” Arthur Delf and Son, at 133 W. Washington, was advertising “Thanksgiving Dinner–Oysters–fresh, stewed or fried. Celery fresh from Newberry. Mince Meat, one pound packages enough for two pies.”

By 1900 travel, football, and even turkey giveaways had entered the Thanksgiving tradition. Thompson and Russell’s Bazaar was advertising carving sets, with prices ranging from 35 cents to $9.75. Palmer’s Bazaar competed with a free turkey with every dinner set sold before Thanksgiving. There were ads for reduced excursion fares to all locations on the Duluth, South Shore, and Atlantic Railway, including to “Lower Michigan via Mackinaw City.” And if you wanted to plan ahead, there were ads for “Cheap Rates and Special Service” for Christmas travel to Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Finland with “free through trains from Marquette to Boston on the DSS&A for anyone booked on one of the excursions.” The trips were promised to be on “The largest and finest steamers on the Atlantic with the most superb third class accommodations in the world.”

You could even go to the theater. For a dime or a quarter you could attend Thanksgiving Day matinee of The Two Orphans at 2:30, or you could splurge (seats up to 35 cents) for the evening show of “The World.”

The religious aspects of the holiday were not completely overlooked. The Mining Journal devoted a full column to the various religious services scheduled. As they had for many years, the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches held union services [combined, ecumenical observances]. In 1900 the main service was held at the Baptist Church at 10 a.m. and featured a sermon on “The Value of Gratitude in the Development of Character.” Before the service, the youth groups of the three churches met together, starting at 7:30 a.m. (!) and the three congregations assembled again at 7:30 p.m. for a union prayer meeting, this time at the Presbyterian Church. St. Paul’s Episcopal and St. Peter’s Catholic churches held their own Thanksgiving services.

The same article, however, mentioned a competing priority: the end of hunting season. Noting that the last day of hunting season was only two days away, the article continued, “Many people who desire to get away from the city will go into the woods on hunting trips…. In forty eight hours that man who brings down a buck or doe lays himself open to penalties of law. This fact will lead sportsmen who have been unsuccessful to date as well as those who desire to use up all their license tags to try their fortunes in the woods.”

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the newspaper was full of Christmas ads. Apostle and Treas of Ishpeming advertised that they had brought in “20,000 pounds of candy for Christmas” and Palmer’s Bazaar said “You want a doll for your little one. Why not buy it now?” But, prominently placed with these ads on the front page was a column with all the Thanksgiving football scores, headlined “Michigan is Outclassed.” The Chicago Bears, at that point still the team of the University of Chicago, had prevailed in the annual match, 15-6.

The University of Chicago no longer has a football team, and the U of M’s annual Thanksgiving rivalry is now with Ohio State. Holiday travel now jams airports, instead of the Duluth, South Shore, and Atlantic Railway.

But there will still be church services, turkey dinners with grandmother, holiday ads, and probably even a hunter or two in the woods, hoping for that last change before the season ends.


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