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The Curious Origins of Thanksgiving

Posted on November 23, 2020

Providing for others, 1952, SCHL1347; Brooklyn Daily Eagle Photo Collection, Center for Brooklyn History

Thanksgiving is typically thought of as a day where we watch a parade of large floating creatures, eat ourselves silly and then gather around the television again to enjoy grown men chasing each other in pursuit of a ball. But not too many people know its strange history.

Prior to Thanksgiving becoming a national holiday, different versions of it were celebrated at different times throughout the year. One aspect of what we think of today as Thanksgiving has always been charity. But before we dive into that, let’s do a quick tour of how Thanksgiving came to be. Practicing a day of thanks was common throughout the country prior to the Civil War, but there was never a specific date. In 1849 fearing a Civil War, Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor at Godey’s Magazine, began an intense letter writing campaign to members of Congress to set aside a day to celebrate what she called “A Great American Festival of Thanksgiving.”

While her efforts to forestall a Civil War did not go as intended, she did manage to convince President Lincoln to declare the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving solidifying it as a national holiday in 1863. Fun fact! The date was moved to the third Thursday of November in 1939 by Franklin Roosevelt to extend the already important shopping period between Thanksgiving and Christmas in an effort to spur the economy during the Great Depression. While most states followed his lead, others balked, and 16 states refused to honor the shift creating dueling Thanksgivings. Two years later the holiday was moved back to the fourth Thursday in November.

But back to charity! Because there were so few governmental or social provisions for the poor it fell to churches and religious organizations to help.  In the early 1900’s Brooklynites donated meals to orphanages, homeless shelters, and prisons mostly through their synagogues and churches. Over time organizations outside of religious affiliation also started to participate. One of the more popular were schools, as pictured here in our Photo of the Week. The caption for this image reads:

“Providing for others–Pupils of P. S. 106 [located at 1328 Putnam Avenue], under the direction of teacher Anne S. Frankie, collect [mostly canned] food for their annual interfaith Thanksgiving project. The food will be turned over for distribution to the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Menorah Home for the Aged and the Lutheran Inner Mission. At rear, Richard DiStepano, 11, of 1399 Jefferson Ave. and Maureen Kidwell, 10, of 1321 Halsey St., and, in front, Jessie Conlon, 6, of 309 Covert St. and Gene Cadaro, 5, [wearing cowboy hat] of 385 Woodlawn Ave.”
While many people will think of Thanksgiving and imagine a giant turkey and all the fixings, it’s important to remember that this holiday has always been about helping others, and especially about making sure they have the most important thing of all – a hot meal.

Interested in seeing more photos from CBH’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. We look forward to inviting you to CBH in the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, please visit our digital collections, available here. Our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected].

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