Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: Thanksgiving family at dinner. No date on the image, but based on the hairstyle and clothes, I’m guessing this is probably around the 1880s or early1890s: Linnaea Mallette/Public Domain Pictures/CC0 1.0

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time of gratitude and giving and many people have a big dinner with “all the trimmings” where both family and non-family members are invited. Although my family isn’t US-born, my parents adopted the Thanksgiving traditions and my mom always had a huge turkey and many of the trimmings (somehow, the sweet potato casserole with marshmallows was always missing…) and we always enjoyed it as a family.

The Waxwood series is set in the Gilded Age, which took place roughly in the last quarter of the 19th century. The series involves a wealthy Nob Hill family. How would the Alderdices celebrate Thanksgiving? Did they celebrate it at all?

Gilded Age aristocracy did indeed celebrate Thanksgiving but not the way we do now. For many of us in the 21st century, Thanksgiving means a large table crowded with food, fall colored table settings, lots of kids and grandparents and aunts and uncles. Rosy cheeks, laughter and family jokes abound. Our vision of Thanksgiving is like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

Photo Credit: “Thanksgiving dinner, Occidental Hotel, San Francisco, CA, 1891, scan by New York Public Library: Fee/Wikimedia Commons/PD scan (PD US expired)

But the aristocrats of the Gilded Age weren’t quite so committed to the idea of a family Thanksgiving. In fact, Gilded Age swells didn’t stay at home — they dined at the fanciest restaurants or hotel dining rooms. It was not unusual for Gilded Agers to feast on non-traditional Thanksgiving fair such as oysters, turtle soup, foie gras, prime rib, and Petit fours. The Thanksgiving menu at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco (one of the swankiest of its day) hardly looks like the usual turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie most Americans feast on nowadays.

We might be led to believe wealthy Gilded Agers weren’t as family-oriented as we are today, but as I pointed out in my blog post about the Gilded Age, people in this period in American history were obsessed with excess and an “over-the-top” feasting on life, especially those who could afford it. A family dinner at home simply didn’t fit in with their lifestyle. An extraordinary dinner at a fine hotel did, and many Gilded Agers used it as an excuse to show off their wealth and affluence with lavish clothes and jewelry. Many went to see and be seen.

If that sounds petty, keep in mind the concept of a family Thanksgiving was foreign to the Pilgrims as well. Pilgrims in the 17th century celebrated Thanksgiving with their neighbors and friends, often times without members of their families present, as many stayed behind in England or perished on the journey to America. Historians cite the 1920s Prohibition era and the Great Depression that follows as reasons why elaborate Thanksgiving festivities of the Gilded Age fell out of favor. That might be, but I’m guessing it had more to do with the post-World War II era when the family became more precious and important to Americans. This is why Rockwell’s illustration became so much a part of the American psyche and Thanksgiving associated with an intimate portrait of family.

Book 1 of the Waxwood Series, The Specter, gives the reader a taste of Thanksgiving in the 19th century. The holiday takes place in April, not November. In fact, until Franklin Roosevelt signed a proclamation making the third Thursday of November the official Thanksgiving holiday, you could find the day of thanksgiving during several different times of the year depending upon the state. If you’re curious, you can read more about that here

The Waxwood Series has just gotten a make-over! To find out more about the series, this page will give you all the details.

Is the life of a Gilded Age debutante all parties and flirtations? Read “The Rose Debutante” to find out! It’s FREE! Plus, you’ll get to know about life in the past and about the resilient women the history books forgot. And how about fun historical facts, great deals on historical fiction books, and a cool monthly freebie thrown in just because? Here’s where you can sign up.

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Summer Vacation in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse, Claude Monet, 1866-1867, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY: Crisco 1492/Wikimedia Common/PD old 80

This Sunday is the official start of summer. Much of my historical family saga, the Waxwood Series, takes place during the summer months. For us 21st century people, summer means hot weather, swimming pools, and beaches. It’s about fun, leisure, and rest. 

The Victorians, however, had a different take on summer. In the 19th century, only the privileged (like my Alderdice family) could afford to take a summer vacation. Middle-class and working-class people did not take time off in the summer or go on vacation. Why? 

First, there was a philosophical issue involved. Tension existed between work and play in America at that time. Doctors and ministers and other authorities were suspicious of vacations, believing they led people to vice. There was also a very practical reason: Most people just couldn’t afford to take time off and go somewhere for the summer (no paid time off for vacations in those days).

What changed? Our awareness that being the constant workhorse was more unhealthy than the sort of vices vacation destinations could offer. Also, the rising middle class in the Gilded Age could finally afford to a week or two off from work during the summer for some fun and leisure. And, too, as with much of American life in the Gilded Age, there was the question of commerce. The travel and hospitality industries (like hotels and restaurants) quickly realized they could make a lot of money by encouraging Americans to take time off to enjoy the summer and play.

In my series, when summer comes, the Alderdice family vacation in the resort town called Waxwood. Resort life was growing in the Gilded Age among the wealthy and upper-middle class. These wealthy people took their summer vacations very seriously, spending months lounging in resorts, meeting new people, and participating in all sorts of activities and events. You can find out more about my series on this page

Ready to dive into my Gilded Age family saga? Now is a perfect time! Book 1, The Specter, has been updated and revised and is now at 99¢. You can get it here

And if you really want to know what it was like to spend a summer in a resort with the wealthy, you’ll want to read Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, which has also recently been updated and revised.

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All Decked Out: Easter in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: Let all rejoice sweet Easter Day, 1881, stock card, published by Geo M. Hayes, Boston Public Library, Print Department: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

It’s officially Easter and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I love to dive into the way things were during the holidays. The Gilded Age made of Easter what it made of many other holidays — an opportunity for opulence and excess. But, then, Gilded Agers knew how to enjoy life.

Easter in America didn’t become a spectacle until after the Civil War. In the first half of the 19th century, it was an important holiday for Christians and Catholics, but some religious groups were apt to ignore it. Others made Easter Sunday a day of mourning the fallen soldiers of the war. 

But things began to change around the 1870s (which coincides, not coincidentally, I think, with the birth of the Gilded Age). Easter was still, of course, a religious holiday and honored as such, but the Gilded Age mentality began to slip in. Gilded Agers saw it as a time to celebrate spring in the best way they knew how — by showing off.

Now, here’s a cartoon that is a sign of the times: An elderly Victorian lady dressed to the nines points toward a lavish Easter bonnet on a maypole while other equally garish women gather around to worship this sign of Gilded Age opulence. But the New Woman isn’t buying it and, in her sensible and comfortable suit, gives her a look like, “Seriously?”

Photo Credit: She won’t bow to the hat, C. J. Taylor, 1896, Library of Congress, Chromolithographs: Picryl/No known restrictions

The tradition of new Easter clothes took off during this period. Easter was the perfect time to jump into spring with bright, pastel shades and adornments. As with other holidays, such as Christmas, consumerism ruled, and it suddenly became a necessity rather than desirable for women and men to get new clothes for the holiday. Advertisements for men’s clothes urged them not to wait to order their new Easter suits, and buying a new hat for the holiday was the order of the day for most women (thus was born the “Easter bonnet”). As you can see from the photos on this page, not a ribbon or a frill was spared on these elaborate headgear. 

Where did Gilded Agers take themselves to display their new Easter garb? To church, obviously. In fact, there were those who weren’t regular churchgoers but would make an exception for Easter Sunday so their fellow worshipers could admire their new spring clothes. Another place Gilded Agers went to see and be seen in their new Easter garb was restaurants and hotels. Just as with Thanksgiving, hotel dining rooms had special menus for Easter that might have included lamb and asparagus (a vegetable just coming into vogue in Victorian cuisine). And the height of showing off in the Gilded Age was the Easter parade. In fact, the idea of the parade was conceived when aristocratic Victorian ladies flocked down Fifth Avenue dressed in their finest after church. In 1948, the musical Easter Parade, starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire epitomized this Easter tradition, especially in this song where Garland tackles all the cliches of Easter in one tune.

Want to read about one Nob Hill family and their rise and fall in the Gilded Age? My entire Waxwood Series is now available!

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