Contact: Yvonne French (202) 707-9191
American Treasures: (202) 707-3834
November 21, 2000
"American Treasures" Exhibition Features Thanksgiving Holiday
1863 Letter to President Lincoln Presses for Holiday
For the first time since the "American Treasures" exhibit opened 2_ years ago, the Library is devoting an exhibition case to the American family holiday of Thanksgiving.
"American Treasures" is a rotating exhibition that showcases some 300 items representing the breadth and depth of the Library's American historical items.
As Thanksgiving's popularity increased, various states including Florida, Texas, Virginia and Maine, have laid claim to having celebrated the first Thanksgiving.
And while many of them may have had some sort of celebration, none had anything resembling the feast held in 1621 at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. Tradition has it that the settlers and Native Americans sat down together for three days of feasting on venison, fowl, and the earth's harvest.
The tradition established there was embellished in 17th century New England, becoming a yearly event in the Connecticut Valley by the 1640s. The holiday combined several elements: the European joyous "harvest home" with eating and drinking, the secular proclamations of Thanksgiving, and religious proclamations of thanksgiving wherein congregations declared days of prayer. Christmas traditions of serving mincemeat pie and plum pudding were moved to Thanksgiving time because those who openly celebrated Christmas in Protestant New England were likely to spend time in jail.
The annual Thanksgiving celebration of prayer and feasting grew in importance in the 17th century. In the 18th century recreational activities were gradually added, with each community adding its own flavor. With the expansion of New England and migration and settlement through the old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana and Illinois), the tradition spread. And by the early 19th century many former New Englanders made their way home for great family celebrations at Thanksgiving time. They had a prayer service, then a hearty midday meal, afternoon recreation and often an evening social (dance).
Celebration of the holiday itself moved west, and virtually all Northern states and some Southern ones were celebrating it by 1858. One of the great champions of the holiday was Sarah Josepha Hale, who for 50 years was the editor of Gody's Ladies Book the most important woman's magazine of the 19th century. She pushed for state sponsorship of the holiday from 1840 onward. In 1863 she wrote a letter to President Lincoln. This letter is on display in the "American Treasures" exhibition. She also editorialized about the holiday in her magazine, asking the president to offer up a national proclamation. Lincoln did so in his 1863 proclamation in which he asked that the last Thursday in November be set aside as "a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent father who dwelleth in the heavens." From that day to the present, presidents have drafted annual Thanksgiving Day proclamations.
Also newly installed in the "American Treasures" exhibition are three cases featuring items related to presidential inaugurations. Among the items on display will be inaugural addresses by Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Ulysses S. Grant in their own hands; inaugural photographs, invitations and programs; and inaugural ball booklets and dance cards.
The "American Treasures" exhibition is located on the second level of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E. Exhibition hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. The Library will be closed on Thanksgiving Day.
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