Thanksgiving in the Pittsburgh area always has been about faith, family and food


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Whether in times of peace or during war, people of southwestern Pennsylvania have strived to mark Thanksgiving with food, family and faith.

Next-day stories in local newspapers over the past 150 years, however, also make clear that many residents did not forget the reason behind the holiday: to express public gratitude for the political, economic and religious blessings that they enjoyed in the United States.

As we sit down to Thanksgiving 2013 tomorrow, we take a look at how we celebrated America's bounty in some leaner and some happy times.

"The churches in [Pittsburgh and Allegheny City] were all filled yesterday," the Pittsburgh Evening Gazette reported on Nov. 29, 1863, the day after Thanksgiving. "We are informed by members of different congregations that the attendance was larger than on any previous occasion."

That November may have marked a low point in American history. The United States had been divided by civil war for 2 1/2 years when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

The year had seen the bloodiest battle of the war at Gettysburg. The president had returned the previous week from the battlefield. There he helped to dedicate a national cemetery where about 3,500 of the Union dead were buried.

In his brief address on Nov. 19, Lincoln recalled the promise in the Declaration of Independence "that all men are created equal." He called upon his listeners and the country to "highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom ... "

That theme was taken up in Thanksgiving church services, the Evening Gazette story said. "In some instances perhaps the utterances of [some of] the clergymen may not have been as clear and enthusiastic as others, but generally our pulpits gave no uncertain sound yesterday."

In an area just 30 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line, it is not surprising that Southern sympathies were present.

"In another instance we are informed that when the minister was extolling the Government a gentleman rose from his seat and made his exit ... not failing in his departure to slam the door with all of his might, in token of his puny opposition," the newspaper reported.

Southwestern Pennsylvanians marked their Civil War Thanksgiving with more than just church services. The Pittsburgh Subsistence Committee, which prepared meals for newly enlisted servicemen, provided free dinners at three locations for 650 soldiers training or recuperating in the area. "The fare provided was rich and in great abundance," the Gazette's anonymous writer said. It included "roast turkeys, chickens, etc., oysters, cakes, pies, fruits, etc."

One dinner location was the city's General Hospital. "The building was handsomely decorated ... the work of decoration being done by the soldiers under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy connected with the hospital."

After they finished their holiday meal, the recruits at Camp Copeland, located at present-day Braddock, passed resolutions of gratitude.

"On motion the resolutions were unanimously adopted and three hearty and prolonged cheers that echoed along the valley were given for the generous donors of the feast," a Nov. 30 story in The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette said. Then "each squad and company quietly retired to their quarters, refreshed in body and purpose for the work before them."

'Hooverizing'

Long before he became president, Herbert Hoover was a major figure in public life and government. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him United States Food Administrator. His mandate was to avoid rationing but encourage less domestic consumption. That policy would allow more food to be shipped overseas to America's war allies in Europe after the United States entered the war in April 1917.

The promotions developed by his agency, including "wheatless Wednesdays" and "meatless Mondays," became known as "Hooverizing."

While farmers and merchants were promised fair prices for the goods, the local Food Administration Committees kept an eye out for price-gouging as Thanksgiving 1917 approached.

A front-page headline in The Pittsburgh Gazette Times on the Nov. 28 warned readers that "Thanksgiving Dinners Higher for Pittsburghers This Year." An accompanying price chart listed seven different foods. It also warned customers "to guard against short weight in buying poultry."

"Weigh your purchases at home," people were told.

Turkeys that year should cost no more than 48 cents per pound, according to the Pittsburgh committee. That number seems modest but is equal to $8.60 in modern currency (whole turkeys this year sell for as little as 68 cents per pound to $2.89 per pound for an organic product). Medium potatoes at 27 cents for 10 pounds in 1917 would be $4.84 now (grocery stores are advertising a 10-pound bag of taters for $1.99 this week).

"If your grocer charges in excess of these prices, he should be reported to W.D. George, local United States food administrator," the newspaper advised.

Pittsburgh officials announced an outdoor Thanksgiving "curb market" to open an 9 a.m. the day before the holiday at 16th Street and Penn Avenue. That block now is at the entrance to Pittsburgh's Strip District.

"In addition to green stuffs and vegetables, the market committee promises a supply of fowl, including chickens, ducks and turkeys." The newspaper on Thanksgiving Day reported the outdoor market "did an unprecedented amount of business" with a few bumps along the way.

One vendor was barred, another had his scales confiscated and many others had their measuring devices adjusted on the spot by city Weighmaster M.L. Kelly.

The day began with "many complaints of short measure, weighing fists with the produce and other 'tricks of the trade,' " the Gazette Times story said. That didn't last. "As soon as it became evident that expulsion from the market would follow trickiness, fair dealing became a rule ... "

Two holidays

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his family and about half the families in the country sat down to Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 23, 1939, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that day. "The others, who live in states whose governors did not fall in line with the President's decisions to change the traditional holiday calendar to advance the observance a week, will wait until next Thursday," the newspaper said.

Two Thanksgivings? What was going on?

The United States was still suffering the effects of the Great Depression and Thanksgiving that year was to be Nov. 30. That left only 24 shopping days until Christmas. Business people had petitioned Mr. Roosevelt to advance the date in his proclamation from the last to the fourth Thursday of November, and he did so. His action changed a precedent that had held since 1863, and his Republican political opponents and traditionalists attacked the move.

In Allegheny County, a Democratic bastion, it was clear that most residents were marking the earlier celebration.

The Nov. 23 newspaper included photos from the Thanksgiving feast at the Humboldt School on Pittsburgh's South Side. There was no turkey, but the children dined on "hot dog sandwiches and hot chocolate - the gift of teachers and a nearby meat dealer. But before they touched a bite, their teacher, Miss Helen Douglass, told them the real meaning of the holiday and together ... the children said a thanksgiving prayer, each in his own way," the article stated.

"There was plenty of white meat and cranberry sauce for everybody in Pittsburgh yesterday as such institutions as the Salvation Army and the Improvement of the Poor offered their annual holiday meals to the city's homeless and impoverished," a Post-Gazette story said on Nov. 24.

Among the 1,000 men "swimming against a strong tide of bad health or bad breaks" who enjoyed the meal was a down-on-his luck, full-blooded Apache named Joeh Indihayo.

"Nohapa" means "good eating," and that was how Mr. Indihayo described the meal provided by the Improvement of the Poor, a social service agency.

Vacant chairs

"The customary peacetime festive mood of Thanksgiving will be absent this year," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editors wrote in a Nov. 26, 1942, commentary. U.S. participation in World War II had meant sacrifices on the home front and on the battlefield. "We are nearer, in such times of crisis, to the reverent feeling with which the Pilgrims celebrated this holiday," the editorial concluded.

Shortages of consumer goods and the imposition of rationing were common and would grow worse as the war continued.

As stock on the shelves of state liquor stores disappeared, store managers had permission to impose informal rationing on buyers from bars and restaurants. A Thanksgiving Day story in the Post-Gazette said owners of the region's small saloons were accusing "big operators" of hoarding. "I don't know where the whiskey has gone," the owner of a "popular Fourth avenue elbow-bendery" complained to a reporter.

"Whipping Cream Out For War's Duration," warned a headline in that same day's paper. The accompanying story said the War Production Board "prohibited dairy producers from distributing whipping cream to householders, retailers, restaurants and other consumers."

The morning newspaper had good news-bad news for coffee drinkers. Coffee cream, which was less rich than whipping cream, wasn't affected by the WPA order, but coffee rationing was itself scheduled to take effect on Nov 28, two days after Thanksgiving.

Residents of southwestern Pennsylvania were reminded that they would need War Ration Book No. 1, already necessary to buy sugar, in order to purchase coffee.

"Millions of workers will observe this day by remaining on the job," another story said. WPA chief Donald Nelson "asked that nothing be allowed to interfere with the uninterrupted flow of war materials."

"President Roosevelt asked that the day be observed with prayer and will set an example with special religious services at the White House ... afterward the President will resume work in the executive offices."

With millions of men and woman undergoing military training or already serving overseas, there were empty chairs at many tables. One story tried to assure families that their boys and girls were well cared for. "Although their folks at home may have to forgo some of that traditional Thanksgiving food, America's soldiers, sailors and Marines in the United States and on the sea and far-flung battlefronts will have an old-fashioned turkey dinner," one Post-Gazette story said. "Quartermasters have promised approximately one pound of top-grade Texas turkey, garnished with fresh frozen peas, for every American soldier" in North Africa.

Turkey trimmings

Temperatures dropping into the low 20s would not chill the region's first Thanksgiving celebration after the end of World War II.

"Thanksgiving, which has just been a word for these past four year, will take on its real meaning today for Pittsburgh and the rest of the world," according to the Nov. 22, 1945, edition of the Post-Gazette. "With full and thankful hearts, Pa Pitt's sons and daughter will celebrate the day in true prewar style, their minds at rest for the first time since World War II engulfed the world."

The newspaper described efforts to make sure the wider community could enjoy the holiday. "In home and hospital, in canteen and army barracks tables will groan under their load of turkey and all the trimmings," the story said. "More than 700 people are expected for dinner at the Improvement of the Poor and a like number will be fed by the Salvation Army and other social service centers ... . Downtown restaurants, closed last Thanksgiving because of the food shortage, will be open this year."

The next day's paper included pictures from some of the region's holiday feasts. They included the turkey dinner provided to 400 homeless men at St. Joseph's House of Hospitality. Since its founding eight years earlier by the Rev. Charles Owen Rice, the charity had provided more than 2 million meals, the story said.

On its editorial page, the Post-Gazette gave thanks for the war's end and for the nation's many blessings, but the editorial board warned that challenges remain to keep the peace. "And if we listen, then, to the persuasive sophistry of those who would have us close our eyes and ears to the despair of millions elsewhere, we shall surely lose the fruits of our sacrifice," the newspaper's editors wrote.


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