Celebrating a day of giving thanks is an American tradition as old as America itself. But it would take decades of effort by one New England woman — and a Civil War — to transform Thanksgiving into the annual, national holiday we know today.
In the mid-19th Century, few in America had as loud and influential a bully pulpit as Sarah Josepha Hale.
"She was one of the first women editors in America," explained writer, scholar and public historian Susan Wilson.
Hale begin her career at the Ladies' Magazine in Boston in the 1820s. "And then by 1837 a much more important magazine in Philadelphia, Godey’s Lady's Book, wanted her and from that she really proved the power of the press," explained Wilson.
Case in point: the Bunker Hill Monument. Construction began in 1825. By 1840 it was still unfinished, and the people building it were flat broke. Enter Hale and her editorials.
"She decided to use her power and to get a variety of ladies together and have what’s been called a glorious bake sale," said Wilson. "It was way more than a bake sale."
Women up and down the east coast made confections and donated items for auction — everything from musical instruments to fancy wares to autographs from American luminaries. The days-long event at Quincy Hall was a smashing success.
"At the end of the week, they had collected an unprecedented $30,035.53," said WIlson. "And that basically covered three-quarters of the total cost to finish the Bunker Hill monument."
But there was perhaps no cause dearer to Hale’s heart than her decades-long campaign to transform a home-spun New England tradition into an annual, national holiday.
"She had very strong feelings about this tradition of a day of Thanksgiving," explained Donna Curtin, executive director of the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth. Curtin said that New England governors regularly declared a day of Thanksgiving in their respective states during Hale’s childhood, usually around the harvest each year.
"Many New Englanders had a deep affection for this holiday because not only was it a time for thankfulness, but it was also a time when everybody could get together and enjoy a wonderful autumn harvest feast," said Curtin.
As New Englanders moved west with the growing nation, they carried the Thanksgiving tradition with them. By the mid-1800s, an autumn day of Thanksgiving was being celebrated more widely, but intermittently — in some states but not others , in some years but not others, and at different times.
"[Hale] believed this was a festival, as she called it, that would never be obsolete," said Curtin. "She said, 'If we can get our government to say we are going to do this one thing together every year, then it will be something that will endure.'"
For some three decades, Hale beat the drum for a national day of Thanksgiving in editorial after editorial — not as a celebration of the Pilgrims, but as a day of national unity.
But, as they say, timing is everything. And in 1863, with the nation embroiled in a Civil War, Hale’s quest took on a new urgency. She wrote directly to President Abraham Lincoln. "She explains to him why she feels this holiday is important, for what it symbolizes in terms of bringing families together," said Curtin. "But also, its unifying moral force for a country that is terribly divided."
The idea clearly struck a chord with Lincoln. He responded almost immediately and soon issued a proclamation calling for a national day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. It would be declared again each year by subsequent Presidents. But that still wasn't enough for Hale.
"She wants to see an act of Congress ensure it is going to occur on the same day every year," said Curtain.
Though she would live to be 90, Hale would not live to see that happen. It finally became law in 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill from Congress setting Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.
Over the years the holiday would take on new elements including that connection back to the Pilgrims. But it would also retain the essence of what Hale envisioned: a day for families to gather, give thanks, and — yes — eat.
"She loved the food associated with this holiday," said Curtin of Hale. "She talks about the roast turkey, and the gravy, and the cranberry sauce, and the great Yankee pumpkin pie that she thinks is just absolute perfection."
So, this Thanksgiving — amidst the feasting, reflecting and reverie — take a moment to also give thanks for Sarah Josepha Hale, the New England woman who helped bring this uniquely American holiday to all of America.