Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age

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Photo Credit: “THANKSGIVING DINNER [held by] OCCIDENTAL HOTEL [at] “SAN FRANCISCO, CA” (HOTEL)”, 1891, scan by New York Public Library: Fee/Wikimedia Commons/PD scan (PD US expired)

For those of us living in the States, Thanksgiving is a big deal. The spirit of gratitude and giving prevails, as well as a sense of patriotism and pride. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time when people don’t necessarily dine with their families, and those who do often times have non-family members at their table. It’s not uncommon to be invited to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, if you don’t have family close by or can’t get to your family for the holiday.

As most of you know, my Waxwood series is set in the Gilded Age (roughly, the last quarter of the 19th century). I’m always curious about history as it relates to the present day, so I was prompted to ask the question, “How would the Alderdices (the series’ wealthy San Francisco family) have celebrated Thanksgiving, if they celebrated it at all?”

It turns out the Gilded Age aristocracy did indeed celebrate Thanksgiving, but not in the way we do now. When we think of this holiday, we think of a large table crowded with food, fall colored table settings, lots of kids and grandparents and aunts and uncles. That is, we think of family. Rosy cheeks, laughter and family jokes and memories abound. Our vision of Thanksgiving is like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

But the aristocrats of the Gilded Age, both “old money” and “nouveau riche,” weren’t quite so committed to the idea of a family Thanksgiving. In fact, the opposite seems to have been true — Gilded Age swells saw Thanksgiving as a time to go out and dine at the fanciest restaurants or hotels. It was not unusual for Gilded Agers to feast on non-traditional Thanksgiving fair, such as oysters, turtle soup, foie graise, prime rib, and Petit fours. The image above of the Thanksgiving menu at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco (one of the swankiest hotels of its day) hardly looks like the usual turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie most Americans feast on today.

We might be led to believe that wealthy Gilded Agers weren’t as family-oriented as we are today, but this need not be the case. 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 did not fit in with their lifestyle. However, an extraordinary dinner at a fine hotel did, and many Gilded Agers used it as an excuse to show off their wealth and affluence, their lavish clothes and jewelry, and their ability to have a good time on a holiday.

If that sounds a little petty, keep in mind that the concept of a family Thanksgiving was foreign to the originators of the celebration as well — the Pilgrims. Pilgrims in the 17th century celebrated Thanksgiving with their neighbors and friends, often times without members of their families present, as many had stayed behind in England or had perished on the journey to America or in the coarse of their hard life on American soil. Historians have cited Prohibition in the 1920’s as well as the Great Depression in the 1930’s as reasons why the elaborate Thanksgiving festivities of the Gilded Age fell out of favor. That might be, but I’m guessing it was more about the post-World War II era in the late-40’s that made the concept of family more precious and more politically important to Americans. This is why Rockwell’s illustration became so much a part of the American psyche and thus, Thanksgiving became associated with an intimate portrait of family.

While Book 2 of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, takes place out of the holiday season, Book 1, The Specter, gives the reader a taste of how Thanksgiving was celebrated in the 1850’s. Interestingly, Penelope Alderdice, who is in Waxwood for the summer as a young woman, writes her mother about the holiday in April, not November. My research shows that the holiday started to appear at the end of the year in 1863, but I couldn’t find out why! Nonetheless, this winter holiday Americas are so used to is a spring holiday for Penelope in the book. Thanksgiving itself is perhaps less significant to Penelope than where she is spending it in the year of 1853 and with whom.

To find out more about the book and get in on a special Black Thursday/Cyber Monday discount (Amazon only), you can go here. To find out more about the Waxwood Series, this page will give you all the details.

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Author: tammayauthor

As soon as Tam May started writing at the age of fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes historical women’s fiction and historical cozy mysteries. She loves to take readers into the nooks and crannies of the past, and she wants to inspire readers with her resilient and autonomous female characters. Most of her fiction is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area because she fell in love with the city and found her independence and writing voice when she lived there in the 1990s. Her book Lessons From My Mother’s Life debuted at #1 in its category on Amazon. She’s also published a Gilded age family saga set among San Francisco’s Nob Hill elite titled the Waxwood Series which follows the Alderdices as they discover their place amidst revolutionary changes and shifting values in the last decade of the 19th century. Tam’s current project is a historical cozy mystery series titled The Paper Chase Mysteries. The series takes place in Northern California at the turn of the 20th century and features amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling, a progressive and independent young woman whose talent for solving crimes comes into direct conflict with her new community apt to prefer the previous era's angel in the house to the current century’s New Woman. Tam lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature, watching classic films, cross-stitching, or cooking yummy vegetarian dishes.