- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

Contrary to popular belief, the Thanksgiving celebrated by Americans today owes little to the pilgrims in New England. It's much more indebted to the spirit of capitalism.
The first Thanksgivings were downright bah-humbug affairs in terms of historical stuffing and the American palate. There was no turkey, no bread and no pumpkin pie in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. Fish and venison appear to have been the main dishes scarcely attractive menus. So, subsequent artists and historians took considerable license with their renditions by the late 1800s, thanks, of course, to the creative efforts of businessmen.
More about that later.
As time went by in Colonial times, fowl that abounded in America (duck, turkey, goose and partridge) made their way to Thanksgiving tables, but no one menu dominated. Had Benjamin Franklin had his way, Americans might not be eating turkey today, for in his view, it should have been the focus of the national emblem, not the bald eagle.
Until the mid-19th century, Thanksgiving was a holiday celebrated mostly by New Englanders. Americans from other sections of the East Coast would venture to the New England states for the annual holiday, with some 10,000 New York City residents making the trek in 1858 alone.
Not surprisingly, Mid-Atlantic businessmen began to urge their state governors to proclaim Thanksgiving as a holiday. This movement dragged on, but then the Civil War provided President Abraham Lincoln with the opportunity to declare a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.
Shortly thereafter, the holiday was promoted heavily in terms of a turkey menu by suppliers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. By 1883, Americans were hooked on turkey, with other fowl, including chicken, way behind in consumer preference. A day before the big feast, one observer noted that New York City markets were overwhelmed: "People appeared to be determined to get a turkey or die," even though the price (10 cents a pound) was not inexpensive.
With the turkey image successfully identified with Thanksgiving, businessmen turned next to the holiday as a means to blend American values with sales of goods that made the November home fires burn brighter. This was a typical ad, replete with rhyming and unintended blank verse:
"Harvest feasts now cheer the land,
Peace and Plenty smiling stand,
'Home Sweet Home' more precious teems.
Old and young in pastimes meet

See the golden moments fleet.
Social love now warmer grows,
People all don warmer clothes.
Largest dealers in the land

Are M. STERN & SON, New York."
Then came the successful movement to identify Thanksgiving as the benchmark for the beginning of the Christmas selling season, what with parades and that famous countdown language ("28 shopping days until ").
In 1939, businessmen were even victorious in getting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to change the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the next-to-last Thursday to permit the Christmas buying season to be extended by one week.
A lot of Americans were so upset with FDR's tinkering that Congress in 1941 officially changed the holiday's date to the fourth Thursday in November, the date celebrated by all 50 states today. But in 1939, the ploy accomplished everything that business wanted and more.
How? Many Americans decided to celebrate two Thanksgivings. The traditional one Nov. 30, as well as the revised one a week earlier. That meant a whole lot of turkeys being sold.
And for the American who could not afford to celebrate both Thanksgivings, the National Sausage Casings Dealers Association came up with a new product that could be readily purchased and eaten, especially at late-November football games.
Bunned and smothered in cranberry sauce, it was appropriately called a turkeyfurter.


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