Thanksgiving One Century Ago

Last week, one of my colleagues asked me if I knew any good Thanksgiving stories from San Joaquin County’s past. I had to admit that I didn’t, but I promised to look. So off I went. Unfortunately, I haven’t succeeded yet, but I did come across an item that started me thinking about how different people have celebrated Thanksgiving through the years.

Here’s some background. As most of us know, tradition credits the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony with celebrating the first Thanksgiving in what became the United States during the autumn of 1621. We often assume that the tradition has continued unbroken on a national level since then, but it hasn’t. In fact, from colonial days to the Civil War, Americans observed thanksgiving days for reasons and at times that tended to vary from colony to colony and state to state. Not until 1863 did they celebrate it nationally at the same time—the last Thursday of November—in response to a proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. And not until 1941 did Congress establish it as a national holiday—on the fourth Thursday of the month, rather than the last.

The item I came across is a postcard that dates from 1912, when Thanksgiving didn’t have the same legal basis as it does today. On the front of the card are colorful pictures of a floral arrangement, a patriotic banner, and a scene from what seems to be Holland. The back identifies the recipient as Mrs. Jane Bowers (a widow living on 1961 East Market Street, Stockton) and includes a brief message from its senders, Anna and Frank: “Another Thanksgiving will soon be here and we wish you a Hearty Thanksgiving and health to celebrate many more.” According to the postmark, they mailed their card from Banta, California, on the morning of November 24.

I can’t help wondering about Bowers and the card’s senders, who lived only a stone’s throw apart by today’s standards. I wonder if they were related. Had they hoped to eat Thanksgiving dinner together? Or had bad weather and undeveloped roadways gotten in the way? Is that why they sent the card, which according to my twenty-first century mindset should have featured turkeys and Pilgrims? Did Jane, Anna, and Frank see the day mainly as a time to socialize with friends and family, or was its significance more religious? Could they expect the day off from work, since Congress hadn’t yet established it as a national holiday? Or did state law give them that privilege? If they worked for themselves, say on their own farm or ranch, did they let up on chores? Most importantly, perhaps, what did they eat? And what on earth did they do without televised football?

My questions go on and on. I don’t have many answers at present. But I intend to keep looking—and to celebrate my own Thanksgiving suspecting that others in the past may have experienced theirs somewhat differently than I will.

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