The holiday of Thanksgiving has its origins in European, particularly English, harvest festivals.
In the United States, we credit the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Mass., for the first Thanksgiving as they brought their traditions of fasting days and thanksgiving days with them. At that time, Thanksgiving was a series of events and religious services.
As president, George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving. The states were free to celebrate the holiday on whatever day they chose. It wasn’t until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln set the date as the last Thursday in November that there was a unified holiday.
Today we celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November because retailers persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move the holiday in 1939. The country was still in a depression, and retail sales needed a boost by having more shopping days until Christmas.
Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with political opposition. The fourth Thursday didn’t become the official holiday until a Congressional resolution in 1941.
There are a few mentions of Thanksgiving in early Quincy newspapers. Sometimes poems were published mentioning harvest foods, commentaries about farmers getting the turkey and stories of turkeys being cared for by families, usually reprinted from Eastern newspapers. One story republished from Birmingham, Conn., in The Quincy Whig in December 1856 told about a woman with a long life and a large family saying, “We doubt if there is another case in this country where a venerable mother can call 230 of her lineal pedigree around her thanksgiving dinner table.”
Because there was no unified date in the 19th century, states joined together, proclaiming a national Thanksgiving on the same Thursday in November. The Dec. 3, 1850, Quincy Whig wrote in an article headlined “Unique to the Last,” “South Carolina will observe Sunday, Oct. 24th as its day of Thanksgiving. What on earth can a State be thankful for that is not thankful for the blessing of the Union?”
Even though governors of various states were making proclamations about a day of “thanksgiving and prayer,” few businesses were closed, and churches were not open, as the day was a Thursday. In one letter to The Quincy Daily Whig in 1859 an anonymous writer called “One of Many,” wrote that as a New Englander, he was accustomed to a proper Thanksgiving with businesses closed and churches open but was dismayed that was not the case in Quincy. He complained that only one church was open for a “union service” and that the clergy were indolent. A rebuttal was published that same day and said, “… you have seen fit to publish an exceedingly bitter and cowardly attack upon the motives and character of Protestant clergymen of this city.”
At about the same time, the Bank of Quincy announced it would not be open on Thanksgiving.
With Lincoln’s proclamation of Oct. 3, 1863, establishing Thanksgiving, he was giving thanks that, “…peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed and that harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the great theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.” He goes on to write, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States …. To observe and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day of thanksgiving and prayer. ...”
Dispatches sent to the Quincy newspapers during December 1864 would mention Thanksgiving Day feasts for the various armies, one saying, “Our soldiers having been fed on turkey on Thanksgiving Day, it is supposed will now be better able to ‘gobble’ up the enemy.” While another dispatch said, “Our soldiers we fed on turkeys, mince pies and all Thanksgiving luxuries, sent to them at private expense, at a greater cost than Great Britain would pay for the whole rations of her standing army in several months.”
After the war, in the later part of the 19th century, Thanksgiving gained importance as a holiday. Each year the president and the governor would issue proclamations. Illinois Gov. John M. Palmer’s proclamation in 1872 said in part, “ [I] invite all the people of the state of Illinois and all strangers in their midst, to set apart Thursday, the Twenty-eight day of November A.D. 1872 as the holy day of giving thanks to the Father of all for the mercies He has bestowed upon us.”
Churches held early morning services; businesses were closed, although restaurants were open and advertised their lunches or dinners. In 1874, The Daily Herald wrote a small article about Ed Lehman’s restaurant at Fourth and Hampshire streets saying, “Right here you could find all the delicacies of the season, consisting in part of roast turkey, cranberries, celery, oysters, fine cake and in fact everything nice. Ed is an old hand at the business. ...”
Two days after Thanksgiving in 1877, the Quincy Daily Herald had four Thanksgiving notices in its “Items in Brief” column. First it said the weather was disagreeable, then there were not as many turkeys that year, then Mr. Hamilton gave a dinner at his home on Hampshire, and finally, “The Tremont served a grand Thanksgiving dinner Thursday. The dining room was crowded with strangers and citizens.”
By 1881, Illinois had six legal holidays. New Year’s Day began the year, followed by Washington’s Birthday, Decoration Day (which was May 30), the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Quincy Daily Herald ran an amusing editorial in 1882 that started with “Gentle reader, this is Thanksgiving day. …The turkey we ate last Thanksgiving day must have been two or three thousand years old. We remember it well. … Our Thanksgiving turkey this year will be a stuffed rabbit. … National banks and some stores close on Thanksgiving day. Some newspaper offices close on Thanksgiving day also, but the Herald office doesn’t. It is a cold day when the Herald office closes.”
Arlis Dittmer is a retired health science librarian and current president of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. During her years with Blessing Health System, she became interested in medical and nursing history — both topics frequently overlooked in history.
“By Telegraph.” Quincy Whig, Oct. 10, 1863, p. 1.
“Dangers of Acids and Alcohols.” Quincy Whig, Dec. 6, 1856, p. 1.
History.com Editors. “Thanksgiving 2020.” Last Modified Nov. 20, 2020. history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving
“Items in Brief.” Quincy Daily Herald, Dec. 1, 1877, p. 1.
“Miscellaneous Items.” Quincy Whig, Dec. 10, 1864, p. 1.
“Miscellaneous Items.” Quincy Whig, Dec. 24, 1864, p. 1.
“News and Notions.” Quincy Daily Herald, Dec. 20, 1881, p. 1.
“Origin of Thanksgiving.” Quincy Daily Whig, Dec. 4, 1865, p. 1.
“Saturday, January 1.” Quincy Daily Whig, Jan. 1, 1859, p. 1.
“Thanksgiving: Proclamation by the Governor.” Quincy Daily Whig, Nov. 22, 1874, p. 1.
“Thanksgiving Day.” Quincy Daily Herald, November 30, 1882, 1.
“Thanksgiving Lunch.” Quincy Daily Herald, November 28, 1874, 1.
“Unique to The Last.” Quincy Whig, December 3, 1850, 1.