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

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14, and writing became her voice. She writes fiction about characters who find their future by exploring their personal past influenced by the time in which they live. Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga. The first book, The Specter, is now available, and the second book will be out in December, 2019. She is also working on a historical mystery series featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and historical fiction, watching classic films, or cooking up awesome vegetarian dishes.

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