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Thanksgiving 50 Years Ago

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, November 20, 1932



By Howard Burba


     Just because it’s a pretty story, and one that awakens patriotic sentiments and makes us feel that we are individually a vital part of this land of the free and home of the brave, is no reason why a story of Thanksgiving Day should hark back to the Pilgrim Fathers.

     Theirs was the real spirit of thanksgiving; I’ll grant you that.  Never has there been a generation that was as thankful for small favors and large ones in proportion.  But we’re apt to get a better brand of harmony if we change the record a little oftener.  So let’s leave the Thanksgiving Day of our Pilgrim Fathers to the school histories for a moment and see how our real fathers celebrated it.

     Taking the city of Dayton of the present day as a basis of comparison, it was quite a town 50 years ago.  Sometime before President Arthur, who had succeeded the martyred Garfield, assassinated the year before, had issued his Thanksgiving proclamation someone had called attention to an historical coincidence of nation-wide interest.  It was pointed out that Thanksgiving Day 50 years ago, or on Nov. 30, 1882, fell on the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain following the Revolutionary War.  There was something else to be thankful for.

     “We were about to mention the fact that today, November 30, 1882, is the centennial of the treaty of peace by which American independence was acknowledged,” said a Dayton paper on Thanksgiving Day, 50 years ago, but the Cincinnati Times Star has beaten us to it.

     “One hundred years ago, on Nov. 30, 1782, the preliminary treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain was signed.  In September of that year four commissioners were appointed, representing the various sections of the Union for the purpose of negotiating a treaty.  These were John Adams, John Jay, Dr. Franklin and Henry Laurens.  They were all in Europe at the time.  Dr. Franklin and Mr. Oswald, the British commissioner, had already prepared the way for the harmonious negotiations.  The principal features of the treaty were as follows:  The unqualified recognition of the independence of the 13 united states; the Mississippi was made the western boundary of the United States, and Canada and Nova Scotia the northern and eastern boundaries; certain measures of restitution of confiscated property to loyalists were to be recommended by congress to the several states; a general cessation of hostilities; withdrawal of troops; a restoration of public and private property.  All of which was carried out to the letter, and for all of which we are on this, the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of that treaty, duly thankful.”

     So much for the historical side of Thanksgiving Day fifty years ago.  Now let’s take a moment, rivet our eyes on the old Dayton newspaper files again, and see what our own fathers had to be thankful for, and how they went about expressing their thanks.  The lead editorial in the little old home-town paper of Nov. 30, 1882, supplies us with information along that line.  Here is how the editor offered up his prayer of thanksgiving:

     “We wish each of our readers a hearty appetite and an excellent dinner to satisfy it.  Not a separate dinner for each reader, but a comfortable meal with a circle of friends.  The air is fresh and bracing and a moderate amount of exercise this morning will put one in excellent condition for the pleasures of the table.  We sincerely hope that there will be no stomach ache in Dayton tonight or tomorrow, yet it is not our own intention to give advice on the subject of diet.  We cannot so far forget the interest of our advertisers as to discourage the purchase of a liberal amount of the substantials and dainties.

     “A man wants a good dinner on Thanksgiving, and Christmas, if he has to deny himself for sometime after.  He feels somehow as though he doesn’t do his duty as a citizen unless he eats a little too much and gets stupid.  It is a comparatively harmless form of amusement, and he ought to be allowed to take it.  If a man drinks too much whisky he either makes a fool or a criminal out of himself, but if he eats too much turkey and mince pie he simply contracts for disagreeable dreams and maybe to pay 50 cents for a prescription.

     “It would not hurt our readers before unfolding their dinner napkins to attend some church service this morning and join devoutly in the singing and listen to an elegant summary of the blessings of the Divine Providence.  But that is a matter for individual inclination and at any rate may be prevented by needed rest or necessary duties.  The preachers will no doubt get through all right, even if the congregations are small.

     “In taking inventory of the things for which we are profoundly thankful, the first item on the list is the day itself, representing a gracious extension of time to unworthy mortals and finding us in a physical and mental condition to enjoy it.  The next is that the Democratic party has not yet taken the reins of government.  Republican officials have many more months yet in which they can draw the salaries and take some comforts before being cast upon the cold charities of the country.

     “Dayton is rapidly growing in size and beauty, and is financially sound.  Few failures have been recorded; money is plentiful, and business is good.  Lawyers report a dull time in court—always a favorable sign.  Grain crops have been large and prices, especially for corn, have been good.  The nation is at peace.  No great catastrophe or epidemic has visited the country within the past year, except the Democratic victories.  A warm winter and a cool summer kept us very comfortable and the fall just passed was never excelled.  A hospital has been dedicated and a widows’ home put under roof.  Numerous elegant residences and at least one beautiful business block have been constructed.  The Fifth st. car line has been put into operation, several manufactories have been built and others greatly enlarged.  More small dwellings have been erected than in any previous year of Dayton’s history.  In a material sense we are in a highly prosperous state.

     “Spiritually and socially, let every man answer for himself, and give thanks accordingly.”

     There is no need to turn the pages of the yellowed old file any farther than to the issue of the day following to learn that every man did give thanks.  There we learn that the day was a typical one insofar as weather conditions were concerned.  A considerable snow had fallen the previous night, and on Thanksgiving morning Dayton awakened to find the ground carpeted in purest white, emblematic in a way of the spirit of the occasion.

     Not every church in the city held services on that Thanksgiving Day.  They had a loyal city-wide spirit of cooperation then as now, so “union services,” in which a number of churches joined in a single program, were carried out.  There was no community chest then.  But in every church a Thanksgiving collection was taken for the poor.

     Out at the soldiers’ home there was a special church service conducted by Revs. Prentiss and DeYoung of the First Presbyterian.  High mass was conducted by Rev. Father Charles Hahne at Emanuel church.  At the Park Presbyterian Rev. A. N. Carsons had for his subject, “Things for Which We Should Be Thankful.” The choir of 12 singers, accompanied on the organ by Howard Pierce, was composed of Miss Lou Stout, Miss Lydia Stout, Miss Mattie Richert, Mrs. S. L. LaRose, Miss Anna Traebing, W. C. Munger, M. DeLauncey, H. A.  Crandall, George H. Hessler, W. J. Jones and C. D. Morton.

     In the Park church Sunday school each adult class took care of a poor family with a generous basket of provisions for the day, and pledged themselves to provide for that family throughout the entire winter.  At Christ Episcopal there was a sermon by Rev. J. T. Webster; Rev. S. A. Mowers preached at the First U. B., while the Reformed church and the Main Street Lutheran joined in a union service conducted by Rev. Dr. Barclay.  A special musical program attracted a large congregation to the Christian church at Fifth and Brown, where Rev. L. R. Gault preached on “Times of Refreshing From the Presence of the Lord.”

     The Jewish synagogue was the scene of special service in English at 2 P.m., when Rev. Taubenhaus spoke of “The Thanksgiving of Moses.”  Rev. Dr. Rust preached at Grace M. E.; Rev. J. H. Montgomery at the Third Street Presbyterian and Rev. C. L. Winget at the summit Street Presbyterian.

     There was every opportunity, we find on this same page of that old Thanksgiving Day newspaper, for a rattling good murder mystery and a chance for a city-wide thrill if the police department had not been so full of turkey as to pass it lightly by.  Whether or not our fathers were less suspicious of their fellowman than their offspring is hard to say.  At any rate, can you imagine such a splendid chance for a mystery that would stir the town getting away in this day as it did 50 years ago once you have read this brief paragraph with which the old newspaper waved it aside:

     “At 10 o’clock yesterday morning,” reads the brief item buried under a little single-line head, “Two men dressed as farmers and riding in a covered wagon, presented a whisky barrel at the United States Express office, on Jefferson st., to be shipped to a Cincinnati resident.  They gave no name, and left hastily.

     “The barrel was taken to the union depot, when Officer Ed Swisher grew suspicious because of its peculiar sound when rolled.  It was opened and contained the nude body of a man.  It was returned to the express office and finally forwarded to its destination.”

That’s all there was to it, so far as the unimaginative reporter of 50 years ago was concerned.  He didn’t even “cook up” a first page scare line, or pen a sob story of how thankful everybody ought to be that they were not the man in the barrel.  He merely “let it ride” as quoted above, and the following day explained that the body was that of an unknown transient who had died while passing through the city and that had been turned over to a Cincinnati medical college by local authorities.

     Football hadn’t come on to monopolize attention on the national feast day, though it was not wholly unknown as a sport.  We find that “a crowd numbering full 200” turned out to see a football contest between the Central high school and the Gymnasium teams, resulting in a victory for the latter “by a score of one touchdown to nothing.”  The paper gives the name of the Gym captain as Hodge, and the personnel as Gebhart, Brown, Wisemonger, Wood, T. Artz, Theobald, W. Bickham, A. Bickham, C. Bickham, Marshall, Graves, and Smith.  On the high school team were: Gross, captain; Artz, Shriver, Frizell, Feight, Slagle, Shroder, H. Theobald, Dover, Miller Gallaher, and Jones.  H. McDermott was the referee.

     Of far more interest in the field of sports that day was the clay pigeon shoot held by the Miami Shooting club at the foot of Prairie st.  And among those participating we find listed: Peter Snyder, Joe Beach, John Stoecklein, Joe Kinninger, Wm. Schwind, Aug. Schwind, John Lambing, Wm. Steinman, John Stephaus, Wm. Storm, Gus Sander, Jacob Snyder, Ben Early, Wm. Nest, John Bisch, Dave Corwin, Chas. Williams, Peter Fitzgrath, Adolph Sander, Adolph Schwind, Milton Miskelly, Chas. Wheelen, John Sandum, Phil Wentz, Ed. Schwind, O. B. Brown, Dan Fenstermaker, O. Schwartzstrauber, Ed. Sander, Wm. Lyman, John Dickson, Louis Schwind, James Ritty, West Troup, Simon Goodman, John Bettelon, Chas. Hanitch.

     Of course there was no gossip around the festal board 50 years ago about “the talkies.”  No argument about which gilded movie palace promised the most fascinating offering.  But there was a far more legitimate attraction on the boards at old Music hall; a star such as “the talkies” have never produced, and from present indications will not succeed in producing for a good many years to come.  Mary Anderson “in person” was the Thanksgiving eve attraction at Music hall and here is what the dramatic editor of the local sheet had to say of her on Thanksgiving Day.

     “One of the largest and most fashionable audiences ever assembled in Dayton listened to Mary Anderson in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Music hall last night.   There was only a partial feeling of satisfaction with her interpretation of Juliet, for to those who had seen Neilsen it was inferior.  The balcony scene was slighted materially, and through the entire entertainment Juliet passes before the audience with a monotonous girlishness that does not conform to the text.  Miss Anderson makes the heroine a weak child throughout, which is not true of the original.  At times her vehemence is illy adapted and out of place, and shows Juliet as a silly, vacillating girl, rather than one of a purpose strong in its very weakness.

     “The company was very good, especially Mr. Robert Downing, who made a very acceptable Romeo.”

     The Thanksgiving Day offering at Music hall was the great Salvini in “The Gladiator.”  His cast included Lewis Morrison, remembered by older theatergoers for his “Faust” of later years.

     But after all, the big feature of the holiday was the same 50 years ago as it is today—the dinner.  And the turkey was then as now the piece de resistance. With appetites already whetted for the annual holiday feast, how about making a few comparisons, with a view to determining if a turkey dinner, with all the trimmings, cost your father any more 50 years ago than the one next Thursday is going to cost you.

     In the first place he had his choice of either a wild or a domestic bird, the former unheard of today.  Wild turkeys were quoted on the Thanksgiving market 50 years ago at from $3 to $3.50 each.  Home-reared turkeys were selling as 12 ½ to 15c a pound, undressed.

     If your father by any chance preferred chicken, goose or duck to the national bird, then he paid thirty cents for his chicken, 65c for a good size goose and the duck, dressed for the pot, cost him from 40c to 50c.  Mayhap he went in for what in this day would be a real luxury.  If so, he bought a pheasant at a total cost of 50c or he paid $3 for a dozen quail.  Rabbits were “poor man’s eating” and so plentiful that there was no market for them.

     Along with the meat course there had to be accessories and side dishes, of course.  So here in brief is what your father paid for the balance of his Thanksgiving dinner in 1882: Cranberries 12 ½ c a quart; potatoes, 12/1/2c a peck; butter 28c a pound; eggs, 22c a dozen; sweet potatoes, 40c a peck; celery, 5c a bunch; chestnuts, 25c a quart; standard oysters, 30c a quart; granulated sugar, 12 1/2c a pound; best Java coffee, 24c to 27c a pound; cabbage, 5c a head; apples, 20c a half-peck; Kelly Island grapes, 10c a pound; bananas, 40c a dozen.

     Then he topped it off with a huge slice of mince pie, the mince meat having been purchased at the grocery at the rate of three pounds for 25c.  That made up the cost of the kingly feast that was good enough for your father.  Now, compare it with the price of your own next Thursday and satisfy yourself how far we have traveled in 50 years in the matter of living costs.

     But, just a moment!  In quite a few homes it was customary 50 years ago for father to reach over on the sideboard, gently lift a little glass decanter to the table and, following that glorious meal, inquire if you would care for about three fingers of his prime stock.

     And, believe it or not, father was able in the good year 1882 to get a whole quart of the very best, open-hearth, kettle-distilled, bottled-in-bond bourbon that ever crossed the Ohio river for only 60 cents.