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Our Thanksgiving Was Invented by "The Victorian Bible of the Parlor" and an Ad Campaign

Updated on July 6, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish offers 25+ years successful experience in medicine, psychology, STEM courses, and aerospace education (CAP).

Traditional, colorful clothing at Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts.
Traditional, colorful clothing at Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts. | Source

Victorian Morality Shaped Thanksgiving Remembrance

The Victorian Era of England (1837-1901), a period of restraint, repression, restrictive corsets, and bustles, influenced New England in America. It also gave us our wonderfully huge and abundant Thanksgiving feasts that many Americans and Canadians love!

New Hampshire was the home of magazine editor Sara Hale, who molded the first Thanksgiving to reflect the qualities of purity, piety, and domesticity in women that Victorian morality required.

For Pious, Pure Women: The nickname "Victorian Bible of the Parlor" comes from Charlotte Eldridge's book "The Godey Lady Doll."
For Pious, Pure Women: The nickname "Victorian Bible of the Parlor" comes from Charlotte Eldridge's book "The Godey Lady Doll." | Source

Many women of Hale's era who were well off financially wore all black or black and white clothing to indicate seriousness and morality. She decided that the settlers in 1621 Plymouth should be portrayed as Victorians and religious pilgrims on a journey to a promised land: moral and solemn founders of a no-nonsense protestant America, signified by black and white clothing.

The protestants who fled religious persecution in England were poor and actually wore cheap fabrics of bright colors. This was true of both the "saints" and "strangers" as the two groups on the Mayflower were known, named by the people who came to be called "Pilgrims."

Mary Ring, died in Plimoth in 1633, and her estate included a "mingled-color" waistcoat, two violet waistcoats, three blue aprons, a red petticoat, a violet petticoat, blue stockings, and white stockings. In addition, she owned gray cloth, blue cloth and red cloth, ready to make additional clothing.

— http://mayflowerhistory.com/clothing/
Recreation of years 1621 - 1627 at Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts.
Recreation of years 1621 - 1627 at Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts. | Source

Hale's Puritan Magazine

So very Victorian in nature was Sarah Hale's magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, that it was taken over in the 1890s by The Puritan, but not before Godey's changed Thanksgiving and helped to establish it as a much-loved national holiday in 1863 under President Abraham Lincoln. Hale's goal was to teach Americans "how they should be" in character, attitudes, actions, and manners.

Various commemorations occurred in the 150th anniversary year of American Thanksgiving, leading to increasing numbers of researchers uncovering Thanksgiving facts in the months leading up to November 2013.

Digging deeper reveals interlocking tales of massacres, coups, treaties, politics, and religious fundamentalism as the framework of what could be called the secret history behind our thanksgiving myths.

— Everett Tucker at Mystic Politics
Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Monmouth Cap. Many males at Plimoth wore these woolen Welsh hats, according to the Provisions List of 1630 in the Plimoth Plantation related museum (The Pilgrim Hall). Wild turkeys in New England are thinner than domesticated farm raised birds. They look fatter than they are when displaying their plumage in aggression or courtship.
The Monmouth Cap. Many males at Plimoth wore these woolen Welsh hats, according to the Provisions List of 1630 in the Plimoth Plantation related museum (The Pilgrim Hall).
The Monmouth Cap. Many males at Plimoth wore these woolen Welsh hats, according to the Provisions List of 1630 in the Plimoth Plantation related museum (The Pilgrim Hall). | Source
Wild turkeys in New England are thinner than domesticated farm raised birds. They look fatter than they are when displaying their plumage in aggression or courtship.
Wild turkeys in New England are thinner than domesticated farm raised birds. They look fatter than they are when displaying their plumage in aggression or courtship. | Source

Development of the Image of the Pilgrim

Black dresses appeared in all formal portraits, special dinners, holidays, and funerals. French women of the Victorian Era dressed similarly to English women, in corsets, bustles, heavy long skirts, many petticoats, and all-black.
Black dresses appeared in all formal portraits, special dinners, holidays, and funerals. French women of the Victorian Era dressed similarly to English women, in corsets, bustles, heavy long skirts, many petticoats, and all-black. | Source

New England Archives and Family Diaries

Much of what has been uncovered about the 1621 gathering in Plimoth Colony, Massachusetts is interesting and some of it is surprising. Some is useful, especially the recipes that were used, but other parts of the history are bloodcurdling.

Sarah Hale (1788 - 1879) incorrectly equated the settlers of Plimoth Plantation with the Puritans of England, who were largely Calvinists that embraced the qualities that Hale liked best:

  1. Continuous hard work,
  2. Piety,
  3. Purity, and
  4. Domesticity for women.

Hale equated Puritans with Pilgrims in a magazine she edited from 1837 - 1877: Godey's Lady's Book, complete with drawings, flowery poetry, and the insistence that a woman's life is marked by four solemn goals:

  1. Baptism,
  2. Holy Communion,
  3. Marriage, and
  4. Death.

Good examples of this thinking were clear in US President James K. Polk and First Lady Sarah Childress Polk from 1845 - 1849. Hale was editing Godey's. and the first lady enjoyed reading it.

Early on, the Polks insisted that dancing be stopped at the Inaugural Ball. In the White House, the usual open houses were pared down quickly. Food service was stopped almost immediately, and then beverages of any kind were prohibited. Conversation was not encouraged.

People visited the Polks only briefly and left. Afterward, the first Couple worked several hours to make up for time lost (Source: The Women In the White House by Marianne Means; Signet/Random House Inc.,1963; pages 78 - 93).

Plimoth's second governor William Bradford wrote:

So they lefte [that] goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, nere 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.

— William Bradford, Governor of Plimoth

Notice above that the lowercase "pilgrimes" was a reference to "strangers and pilgrims" in the Book of Hebrews, Old Testament. and that the passage rings of spirituality, whether that spirituality was sincere or exaggerated by the governor -- The main "food" the ship carried to America was beer.

The word was capitalized to "Pilgrims" in 1669 documents written by Nathaniel Norton and in 1702 by author Cotton Mather.

"Pilgrims": The Victorians of 1621

The proper noun "Pilgrims" was not used until after 1798, it's first use still unknown. In 1827, 39-year-old Sarah Hale wrote her first letter to campaign for Thanksgiving as a national holiday, thereafter writing continually to dozens of state governors and five US Presidents.

In 1837, she became editor of Godey's and campaigned for her cause within its popular pages. In 1840, America's retail sector joined her, lobbying for Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. An ad campaign with Pilgrims (dressed as Puritans), "Indians", women, turkeys, and pies took flight.

Hale's campaign was successful after 36 years. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be observed that November and he held a second Thanksgiving in 1863 in memory of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Sarah Hale retired from editing at age 89 in 1887 and lived just two more years. At the age of 34, she had been widowed from her attorney husband and raised five children alone, while teaching school and editing Godey's. Her entire life was one of consistent hard work in long hours.

A young Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879)
A young Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) | Source

Aside from changing and campaigning for her notion of Thanksgiving, Sarah Hale was also active in the preservation of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate and several other historic sites.

Hale's Holiday Vision

In 1827, Hale wrote about Thanksgiving in such hyperbole that the record is astonishingly hard to believe.

Her notion of Thanksgiving included men, women, and children sitting around a table on which they had placed a huge turkey with a large amount of stuffing, a flank of sirloin, a large cut of pork, mutton, geese, ducks, a large chicken pie, many vegetables, and large bowls of gravies.

Later, in Godey's, she encouraged the addition of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pies, and several other dishes. She provided recipes and other materials for use during Thanksgiving.

The 150th Anniversary of Thanksgiving: 2013

Sarah Hale Park at the Richards Free Library, New Hampshire: This town park and a statue in Hale's hometown were dedicated in November 2013 to honor her achievement of a national Thanksgiving for 1863 and an official holiday in 1941 that millions of people celebrate with much love and remembrance today.

New Hampshire turkeys.
New Hampshire turkeys. | Source

In 1621, the colonists and the Wampanoag came together in a secular gathering. They had a huge feast and played games, including competitive sports. But as I continued doing more research, I realized that, in fact, none of these claims led directly to the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the United States. That is not to say that they did not leave a mark on our historical memory. They did.

— Penny Colman in "Thanksgiving: The True Story," pages 23 - 24.

The Actual Settlers and Advertising Campaigns

We have some consensus about the first New World settlers of 1620, but we also have lingering discrepancies. The sorting of the various data is intriguing and here are some of the results:

  1. The public accepted the name "Pilgrims" for the Plimoth settlers after 1798 and increasingly throughout the 1800s.
  2. The settlers surviving in the autumn of 1621 numbered only in the range of 47 - 53, according to different diaries. The religious segment called themselves "saints" and looked for a new life beyond the Church of England, but the first Thanksgiving was not a religious occasion. It was secular.
  3. The settlers wore cheap materials of bright colors, but many of the women possessed small quantities of black fabric, listed in inventories taken before their deaths and now in archives of the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The hard, rough life would have prevented any white material from remaining white and the rough structures in the photo at the top of this article illustrate that reality. Ruffles, large collars and cuffs, and tall hats were destroyed by this lifestyle. Correspondence indicates that the men wore wool caps after 1621.
  4. For the 1621 feast, there were 31 English men and teen boys present. Robert Krulwich writes that the all-white four women, five teen girls, and thirteen children were not invited, because they prepared and served the food to their men and the Native Americans, eating later themselves.
  5. The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, was invited and he brought 98 additional surprise guests, all male. It was the tribal tradition to share such an invitation with the males of the village. He brought most of the food, since the colonists' food was kept locked up by Governor Bradford.
  6. The Native Americans supplied five deer for a celebration that spanned three days. The meal included ducks and geese, corn, nuts, berries, and puddings of squash and pumpkin. England was a nation that made pies of many sorts, but the English did not have any flour for crusts, so the puddings sufficed. Mr. Krulwich learned from Linda Coombs, an Aquinnah Wampanoag who directs a cultural center at today's Plimoth Plantation, that the meal likely included "sobaheg", a stew of corn, beans, squash (the Three Sisters); and a variety of game meats. There was also an abundance of clams, lobsters, eels, onions, turnips, and greens.
  7. Some researchers feel that turkey was not prepared in 1621. However, Governor Bradford and a settler, Edward Winslow, indicate that turkeys had been hunted and locked into the community storehouse. This information is contained in correspondence held at Plymouth (pilgrimhallmuseum.org). No mention of preparing them exists. The much fatter turkeys displayed in advertising schemes today are the result of farm raising, sometimes with the administration of hormones and extremely cramped living conditions.
  8. The English men had several casks of beer. A consensus is that the English became intoxicated and began shooting their rifles in the air to display power.
  9. Through the efforts of Sarah Hale and American retailers, Thanksgiving was imbued with strict religious overtones of solemnity and prayerfulness, promoted by Victorian women who wore the purity and piety of black and white attire. Most US States had their own Thanksgivings by 1840 and gladly picked up elements of celebration with food (especially Hale's recipes) and drink. This movement added shopping as one of the relevant activities and when the US Congress declared the legal national holiday in 1941, Black Friday was not far behind.

Twelve Origins Claimed For Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving: The True Story
Thanksgiving: The True Story

As an instructor, I have used this book in summer school and church school programs, as well as in GED classes for several years and have been thankful to be able to share the actual origins and accurate history of today's Thanksgiving customs. My students have received information that has never been available in public school classrooms in my state. In addition, The Ohio State University now hosts an annual reenactment of the First Thanksgiving with help from this book and other materials. I am pleased that author Penny Colman examines 12 different claims about the holiday in 160 pages. Her writing in interesting as well as informative. My students and I have particularly enjoyed the handling of very old traditions like odd parades of costumed men. Colman also looks at the National Day of Mourning begun in 1970 to honor Native Americans who have lost their lives since 1621 in their experiences with settlers and invaders. This is particularly poignant to those of us of native heritage. Thus, the may sides of Thanksgiving are analyzed in one compact book that I recommend for its accuracy and interest.

 

Provocative Quote From a Colonist's Letter

The following document appears in correspondence held in the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

"By Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow, published in Mourt's Relation: A relation or journal of the beginning and proceedings of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, London, 1622":

"Let your cask for beer and water be iron-bound, for the first tier, if not more...Let your meal be so hard trod in your cask that you shall need an adz or hatchet to work it out with."

"What's a pilgrim?" ... "Search me."
"What's a pilgrim?" ... "Search me." | Source

Actual Events Begin to Appear on Film in 2013

During November 2013, the same month that a park and statue were dedicated to Sarah Hale, the animated holiday film Free Birds 3D was released and proved quite interested.

Governor Bradford of Plimoth Plantation was portrayed as a fat, greedy slob who kept all of the community's supplies and food locked inside his own house. In fact, actual diaries at Plimoth Museum indicate that all the turkeys were kept hidden in the storehouse and the Native Americans provided freshly killed game for the meal.

In the movie, Myles Standish looked like a thin Wild West bounty hunter dressed all in black and riding a black horse. His face was scarred and hollow-cheeked.

Children in the audiences were likely unaware of his attacks upon Native Americans after the 1621 feast, but he is a villain on film. The wild turkeys of the colony are Standish's prey in the film, wearing war paint and Native American feathers. Some of the birds speak with a stereotypical Native American accent.

This all illustrated Standish's crimes without putting too fine a point on the portrayal and makes a good prompt for family discussions about the holiday and racism in America.

A markerPlimouth Plantation, Massachusetts -
Plimoth Plantation, 137 Warren Avenue, Plymouth, MA 02360, USA
get directions

Plimouth Plantation Museum. Archives hold letters from the colony governor, along with letters and diaries of colonists that tell a different story

Sources

  1. Colman, Penny. Thanksgiving: The True Story. 2008.
  2. Free Birds 3D; Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, George Takei, Colm Meaney, Keith David, and Robert Beltran. November 1, 2013.
  3. Hale, Sarah; editor. Puritan/Godey's Lady Book. University of Pennsylvania Library; scans of most issues. onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=godeylady Retrieved October 30, 2013.
  4. Hale. Sarah. Traits of American Life: Thanksgiving of the Heart; p. 209. 1835.
  5. Krulwich, Robert. NPR: First Thanksgiving Dinner: No Turkeys. No Ladies. No Pies www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2010/11/22/131516586/who-brought-the-turkey-the-truth-about-the-first-thanksgiving Retrieved October 29, 2013.
  6. Lakotah Nation; Republic of Lakotah. Cooking the History Books: The Thanksgiving Massacre. www.republicoflakotah.com/2009/cooking-the-history-books-the-thanksgiving-massacre/ Retrieved October 29, 2013.
  7. Peters, Amy Condra. Godey's Lady's Book and Sarah Josepha Hale: Making Female Education Fashionable. www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1992-3/peters.htm Retrieved October 30, 2013.
  8. Provisions List of 1630 in the Plimouth Plantation Living History Museum. Accessed during a visit in September, 2013.
  9. Tucker, Everett. "Pilgrim Propaganda: The Secret History of Thanksgiving." Mystic Politics mysticpolitics.com/pilgrim-propaganda-the-secret-history-of-thanksgiving Retrieved October 30, 2013.

© 2013 Patty Inglish

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    • Sara Copley profile image

      Sara Copley 22 months ago

      Great Hub! Lots of information. And thanks for including the link to her magazine. I will have to check that out!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 3 years ago from North America

      @UnnamedHarald - Thanks for your comment and congratulations! Keeping all the Hubs fresh is like juggling dinner plates on the tops of sticks in a circus act sometimes. :)

      Sarah Hale helped retailers sell more "stuff" for a holiday, but in the end, also helped them gain extra shopping days between official holidays -- She didn't think of Black Friday, but it is far out of hand, since people have been injured and one killed during the last few of them. Since some people are going shopping instead of having a Thanksgiving meal and many stores are open this year, even Hale's newer "old" traditions are beginning to disappear. I wonder what the holiday will be like in 10 years and how many people will know about the real Plimouth Colony then?

      Have a great weekend away from retail mobs!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I've always been fascinated by history, but I view it with a skeptical eye because much of "history" is more myth than truth. I love articles like this that try to set the record straight and I have no problem changing my own articles if I find out I've bought into something that was... embellished. If that makes me a revisionist, that's fine. I have no problem revising history if it gets us closer to the truth. Oh yeah... congratulations on TWO THOUSAND FEATURED HUBS, Patty.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
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      Patty Inglish 3 years ago from North America

      Quote from research class at Plimouth Plantation, Massacusetts site listed in previous comment:

      "The 1623 event celebrated two events - the end of a drought, and the news that a ship carrying new colonists, feared sunk, was safe and in transit. It had nothing to do with the harvest, activities of Native Americans, pestilence or the establishment of the church."

      However, all of this may be moot, since the Spanish celebrated Thanskgivings in their North American settlements in the 1500s and the Native Americans celebrated Thanksgivings for hundreds of years before them. The folks at Plimouth or any earlier English settlement were not the first, no matter what. But I still like Thaksgiving and the modern faith-based traditions we have for it.

      Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
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      Patty Inglish 3 years ago from North America

      Eddy - Thanks a million for your comment!

      WannaB Writer -- That's part of the ongoing melee about the holiday and I do not trust what is published as Bradford's book as completely authentic, because it does not match his other records. I'm Christian, but can't say there was prayer where there was none, as Sarah Hale did for years.

      The hard-copy records I read of 1620 through 1622 do show otherwise, with no prayer performed in 1621, but rather, a beer party, to be crude. Bradford may or may not have prayed in 1623, however:

      Preserved records and diaries of the colony held at Pilgrim Hall Museum and Plimouth Plantation show that Bradford made a declaration of Thanks to God in 1623. That's great. However historians question whether this is a real document, because of terms used that did not originate until some years into the future! It may have been something whipped up by the lady's magazine. See one explanation at

      web DOT ccsd DOT k12 DOT wy DOT us/techcurr/social%20studies/05/0101th-bradp.html

      This is like the Kennedy Assassination - we will never know all the facts.

    • WannaB Writer profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 3 years ago from Templeton, CA

      Very well researched, but what I remember of Bradford's history did indicate Thanksgiving to God. I'll take another look.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      A great read and voted up for sure.

      Eddy.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Thank you Sara Hale! LOL I am so glad she instituted what we now celebrate as Thanksgiving. I love the meal with turkey, although I did know that turkey was not served at that first thanksgiving but venison and seafood as you mention. Great hub full of many interesting and informative facts. Thanks for sharing.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 3 years ago from North America

      Joy at Home _ I am really happy to be able to put this all together, because there are so many bits and pieces scattered over the Internet that we can't see the whole picture.

      vocalcoach - I hope your family enjoys the article! Let me know what they say in response. I think that because 2013 is the 50th Anniversary of the 1863 Thanksgiving, that all this Sarah Hale information is being found more easily than before. More attention is focused on it.

      MsDora - I'm happy not to have been at the first Thanksgiving, with barrels of beer and druken men shooting rifles while the women and children lugged pots of food back and forth and probably ate leftovers if there were any! I'm part Mohawk, so I REALLY wonder what the Native Americans thought. I'm glad to HAVE a Thanksgiving holiday, though; we can thank Hale for that.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Very interesting information. I'd like to read "Thanksgiving: The True Story" I know that is really easy to convince people and for people to believe what they read. Hale's version is outstanding.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 3 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      I feel like I have just had the best Thanksgiving ever! You have presented a history that I think deserves an award. Never, have I learned so much about this national holiday. I'm a bit embarrassed that I didn't even know, until reading your hub, that Sarah Hale was responsible for campaigning for Thanksgiving to be a National Holiday.

      With your permission, I would like to present this hub to my family at our Thanksgiving celebration. It is nothing short of spectacular in detail, drawings and photos.

      Thanks Patty for all the time you have donated to writing this history. I am so thankful. Sharing on FB, Twitter, Pinterest and more.

    • Joy At Home profile image

      Joy At Home 3 years ago from United States

      This article turned out to be just the thing I wanted! I've been researching Thanksgiving for the past two to three years, and was looking for new source material. Thank you, as it is important to me to lead my children aright.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
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      Patty Inglish 3 years ago from North America

      A wonderful attitude, Ericdierker! Thank you for your visit and comments.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Marvelous, simply marvelous. We celebrate in so many ways. Sometimes we are poor and just have what we have. And there is great thanksgiving for that.

      My wife and I have decided that it is a day of abundance no matter what we got.