"...The snowstorm and our our icy entrance into our new home took place on the day before Thanksgiving. As my husband and I snuggled together that first night in our nineteenth-century house, with the storm howling outside and our hopes spreading out in our dreaming minds like the fractal patterns on the parlor window, it was hard to imagine a more appropriate holiday to welcome us into our Victorian home. We were incredibly thankful for the blessing of this momentous step towards our dreams of exploring the nineteenth-century. Beyond this symbolism, there is a very real connection between the Victorian era and the origins of Thanksgiving as a national occasion.
Most modern Americans tend to associate the feast with the seventeenth-century and pilgrims, but the celebration of the holiday was limited to New England until well into the nineteenth-century. The concept of a festal celebration of thanks is an old one, but it took a Victorian lady to institutionalize it. Specifically, it took the editress of one of my favorite magazines: Sarah Josepha Hale, editress of Godey's Lady's Book.
Interestingly, Hale's conviction that we should have a national day of thanks played a part (although admittedly a small one) in landing her the job at Godey's. Hale began her writing career with a novel entitled Northwood; or, Life North and South: Showing the Character of Both, and her conviction about Thanksgiving enters into the book in a manner somewhat resembling a Socratic dialogue:
"Is Thanksgiving Day universally observed in America?" inquired Mr. Frankford.
"Not yet; but I trust it will become so. We have too few holidays. Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, should be considered a national festival, and observed by all our people."
"I see no particular reason for such an observance," remarked Frankford.
"I do," returned the Squire. "We want it as the exponent of our Republican institutions, which are based on the acknowledgement that God is our Lord, and that, as a nation, we derive our privileges and blessings from Him. You will hear this doctrine set forth in the sermon to-morrow."
"I thought you had no national religion."
"No established religion, you mean. Our people do not need compulsion to support the gospel. But to return to our Thanksgiving festival. When it shall be observed, on the same day, throughout all the states and territories, it will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness, such as the world has never yet witnessed."
Northwood... was an instant success - which was lucky for Hale, since she wrote the book after her husband died and she suddenly found herself a single mother with children to support, including a brand-new baby. Less than a month after the book was published, Hale received a job offer for the editorship of a new, "Ladies' Magazine." She would move on from that project to Godey's, which became one of the most important periodicals in nineteenth-century America. It is now primarily remembered for its fashion plates and craft articles, but the magazine covered social issues as well.
Throughout her publishing career, Hale continued to champion her pet cause of turning Thanksgiving into a holiday which would be shared by all people, not just New England protestants: "...[C]ould not every Christian nation and every Jewish family in the world join us in this Thanksgiving, on the last Thursday in November?"
Hale took the case for Thanksgiving to the highest authority in America - all the way to President Lincoln. In a letter to Lincoln dated September 28, 1863, Hale directed her perpetual request to the country's Commander in Chief. Given that the Civil War was raging and September's 174 battles had resulted in 35,499 casualties (including Lincoln's own brother-in-law, Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin Helms, killed in the Battle of Chickamauga on September 21st) one might consider that the President of the divided United States had weightier matters on his mind than a holiday proposal by the editor of a domestic magazine. However, he clearly read Hale's letter and seemed to think her cause was a worthy one - or at least, that it was politically savvy. (Declaring a day of thanks is, after all, politically somewhat analogous to kissing babies: easy to do, and few people object.)
On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday in November would be a national Thanksgiving - exactly as Hale had proposed. Personally, the part of this story which I find the most impressive is its timing: President Lincoln's proclamation came less than one week after Hale had written her letter! Given the condition of the twenty-first-century postal system I have difficulty imagining a modern American president even receiving a physical letter in less than a week, let alone acting on it!
Lincoln's presidential proclamation (which was a one-time deal, for a Thanksgiving in 1863 alone) still wasn't enough for Hale. She requested another Thanksgiving the following year, and it was again granted by presidential decree. By this time the country was getting used to the idea, and on April 8, 1865, the citizens of New York sent President Lincoln a thirty-one page petition containing approximately eight-hundred and seventy signatures requesting a national day of Thanksgiving.
After Lincoln's assasination, later Presidents continued the tradition and appointed yearly Thankgivings at the end of every November. Still not satisfied (and by now slightly obsessed) Hale's magazine started urging that not just the President, but Congress as well should recognize her pet holiday. In 1874, when Hale was in her late 80's, an Editor's Table piece in Godey's pled for Congressional recognition of Thanksgiving, and was accompanied by a hymn to the holiday - written by its strongest advocate. Why, exactly, old Mrs. Hale felt such a driving need to keep fighting a battle which was already won is unclear. Perhaps she had just gotten used to fighting it. Unfortunately, she didn't live to see the Congressional chapter of Thanksgiving's story (which would finally take place in 1941.) However, she had certainly achieved her goal as far as the public was concerned. By the 1870's, Thanksgiving was such a part of America's subconscious that the book Thanksgiving: Memories of the Day... refers to the day as if its origins had been lost to the annals of time:
"The bare mention of the word, the Old Thanksgiving Day - what a power it has to revive the pleasant reminiscences, and recall the brightest scenes of other days in many hearts! It transports them to the homes of their childhood. It takes them at once into the presence of the father and mother who, it may be, for many years have been sleeping in the grave. It recalls their smiles of affectionate greeting, their tones of cheerful welcome; tones and smiles such as none but they could give. Every image of peace, contentment, competence, abundance and joy, comes back spontaneously on each return of the grateful festival."
The national holiday had become exactly what Mrs. Hale had envisioned, and what it remains to this day: a celebration of home and hearth, and the blessings for which we are grateful.
The construction on our house began in 1888 and finished in 1889. In the very months when builders were putting up the walls which would one day be our home, Good Housekeeping printed an article about a young couple entering their own new home on Thanksgiving. "Isn't it old-fashioned and home-like and dear?" The wife asks as they enter the long-empty building. "...Any house for a home to grow in would be a great deal to us, but this is so good! I can't make it real!"
"But it is," her husband tells her. "...Do you remember, dear, how a year ago, you tried to cheer me, one day when things were more deeply, darkly blue than common? You said there would be a way. Our home would come to us, or we to it, in time... if we but worked and waited and hoped meanwhile."
When I read the piece over a century later, the sentiments it expressed were so familiar to me that my heartstrings thrummed in recognition of its themes.
It's true that our entry to our new-old home was significantly more barren than the one in the story. In the Good Housekeeping piece the house in Old Hill Town is given as a present - furnishings, appliances and all - to the young couple by a rich judge and his wife. The benefactors had seen that the couple were good and deserving people, and, displaying the generosity common in Victorian fiction, wished to help them into a new situation. In our case, the absentee landlords who had previously owned the house had actually travelled from a different state to pry up and carry off items that had been nailed down less than a week before the paperwork transfering ownership cleared. This booty included the kitchen shelves - and even the mailbox!
Then again, the G.H. piece was fiction, after all. Real life has precious few of the generous benefactors who act as Deus ex machinas in stories. We had only ourselves, our wits, our hearts and nerves and sinews. We knew that in many ways it would be more complicated to reconstruct elements of the nineteenth-century, its culture and technology, than simply to live through it would have been. It wasn't just a matter of cutting things out, but of resurrecting technologies which had existed and finding the most appropriate equivalents to infrastructures which are now gone forever.
Life in any society is supported by the entire infrastructure of that particular civilization; many of the quotidian elements of the nineteenth-century have long since disappeared. There are no icemen or milkmen in twenty-first century Port Townsend, although they would have once been a familiar sight to virtually every home in America. The skilled artisans who could be relied on to produce and maintain life's necessities are now often equally endangered species. Supplies which would have once been available at the many stores in town have become extraordinarily challenging to find. We knew we had a lot of work ahead of us. We also knew that it would be a great and educational adventure, and that we would love every minute of it - even the frustrating parts."
 Hale, Sarah Josepha. Northwood; or, Life North and South: Showing the Character of Both. New York: 1852, p. 68.
 Hale, Mrs. Manners; Or, Happy Homes and Good Society All the Year Round. Boston: J.E. Tilton and Company. 1868, p. 6.
 "Battles and Casualties of the Civil War Map." <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/lifestyle/special/civil-war-interactive/civil-war-battles-and-casualties-interactive-map/>
 "Civil War Timeline / Chronology for 1863." <http://blueandgraytrail.com/year/186309>
 Baker, Peggy M. "The Godmother of Thanksgiving: The Story of Sarah Josepha Hale." <http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/Godmother_of_Thanksgiving.pdf>
The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916. New York Citizens to Abraham Lincoln, Saturday, April 08, 1865 (Petition requesting day of thanksgiving) <http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mal&fileName=mal1/415/4159500/malpage.db&recNum=0>
 Editor's Table. "Our National Thanksgiving Day." Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine. Volume LXXXIX. No. 533. Philadelphia: November, 1874, p. 471.
 Baker, ibid.
 Adams, William. Thanksgiving: Memories of the Day: Helps to the Habit. New York: 1873, pp. 4-5.
 Dana, Olive E. "Thanksgiving For Two." Good Housekeeping. November 24, 1888. p. 32.
This passage was excerpted from This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Living - coming in 2015 from Skyhorse Publishing!