Thanksgiving as national day of gratitude began in Victorian Era

It was declared a federal holiday by Abraham Lincoln, in midst of Civil War, after a passionate campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale

Dr. Emlen Physick, portrayed by Ben Ridings, in the formal dining room at the 1879 Physick House Museum, Cape May’s Victorian House Museum.

CAPE MAY — Thanksgiving was the crusade of Sarah Josepha Hale, a Victorian powerhouse of passion and influence. Literary editor of the popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, she advocated from 1822 to 1863 for one national day of Thanksgiving, at a time when a hodgepodge of some 20 states had declared their own Thanksgiving holidays.

Dr. Emlen Physick, portrayed by Ben Ridings, in the formal dining room at the 1879 Physick House Museum, Cape May’s Victorian House Museum.

“It is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year, and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude,” she said in 1822.

By Oct. 3, 1863 her voice had rung through stories, editorials and personal letters, and convinced President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, to proclaim the nation’s first federal holiday of Thanksgiving:

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God …

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. …

“So Thanksgiving is truly a Victorian holiday in the United States,” said Gail Capehart, Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture) Curator.

More than 15 years after President Lincoln’s proclamation, Dr. Emlen Physick, his mother, Mrs. Frances Ralston and his Aunt Emilie Parmentier, with perhaps additional family members who traveled from Philadelphia to 1048 Washington St, Cape May, N.J., would have sat down together to their first Thanksgiving dinner in their stunning new Stick Style mansion, designed by great American architect Frank Furness and built in 1879. Perhaps Mrs. Ralston had a copy of Godey’s Lady Book on her dressing table.

Dr. Emlen Physick, portrayed by Ben Ridings, in the formal dining room at the 1879 Physick House Museum, Cape May’s Victorian House Museum.

They might have attended church services on Thanksgiving Day.

“You did usually attend church on Thanksgiving,” said Ben Ridings, Cape May MAC’s Registrar.

He looked at Cape May Star & Wave archives from the late 1800s and notes a number of advertisements for Thanksgiving Day church services in those pages. A good Thanksgiving in Cape May also meant helping those less fortunate, a tradition that continues today. While you might have helped the Ladies Aid Society at the Methodist-Episcopal Church in Cape May to host their Thanksgiving supper in the chapel, your motivation in doing so was likely to “American-ize” newly arrived immigrants from, say, Germany, Ireland or Poland.

“The middle class and certainly the upper class, too, felt they had a duty to ‘Americanize’ immigrants and make it the melting pot,” Capehart said. “So that’s part of what motivated providing a Thanksgiving meal. What’s more American than Thanksgiving? And Thanksgiving is about family and home. That’s the message that extended beyond the house of the middle and upper class to these new Americans.”

The Physick family might have had a hearty breakfast. Then, of course, the main Thanksgiving meal, served in the afternoon, in the Dining Room. Then, perhaps, a light supper later in the evening.

What would that first Physick family Thanksgiving meal have been like?

“We don’t know for sure,” said Cape May MAC Curator Gail Capehart. “But Victorians as a rule, did prepare a number of foods that are familiar to us today.”

“The turkey, the mashed potatoes and the cranberries. Almost every Victorian Thanksgiving menu had cranberries.”

Dr. Emlen Physick, portrayed by Ben Ridings, in the formal dining room at the 1879 Physick House Museum, Cape May’s Victorian House Museum.

Dr. Physick’s cook could have gotten the family turkey from the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, or perhaps locally, at the Brooks Supermarket down the street.

Cookbooks were developing during Victorian times, with measurements becoming standard, making a cook’s job easier, Capehart said.

“Fannie Farmer cookbooks, still published today, were the first ones to use scientific methods for cooking, like measuring spoons and measuring cups. Before that, you saw things like “use the amount of butter the size of an egg,” or, a teacup of bread crumbs.”

Family traveled to share the Thanksgiving meal together, as they do today.

“In every (Star & Wave) newspaper they printed the comings and goings of people to Cape May and back, so of course around Thanksgiving you have all these people coming into town, with ‘So and so is visiting their parents on Washington Street.’ So, yes, people did come home for Thanksgiving,” said Ridings.

Greeting cards were popular at Thanksgiving and expected during Victorian times. Leftovers after the abundant Thanksgiving meal created many more meals for frugal Victoria
ns, just as they do now. So what about today’s ritual of Thanksgiving football on TV?

Further research in the Star & Wave revealed a possible Victorian equivalent.

In 1901, advertised in the Star & Wave: “Thanksgiving Horse Races.”

Susan Krysiak is Director of Media Relations for Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture). Cape May MAC is committed to promoting the preservation, interpretation and cultural enrichment of the Cape May region for its residents and visitors. For information on year-round tours, activities and events in Cape May, N.J., visit