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A Century Ago: Olympia celebrates Thanksgiving during World War I 

By Jennifer Crooks
via the Thurston TALK web site

Camp Lewis Gate 1917Camp Lewis near Olympia, WA was finishing construction on Thanksgiving Day, 1917For many people Thanksgiving is a special annual event, one full of tradition and memories. And the celebration marks the official start of the holiday season. How Thanksgiving was celebrated 100 years ago in Olympia is both familiar, with family reunions, large meals and thankfulness, there are some things that have definitely changed since 1917. Changes include everything from different cooking styles to improved transportation technologies, but the most important change is that Thanksgiving 1917 took place in the midst of the official American involvement in World War I (1917-1918).

Long celebrated in New England, Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863 as established by a presidential proclamation. Every president since then has issued a Thanksgiving proclamation each year. Governors usually proclaim the holiday as well. Until 1939 Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last, rather than the fourth, Thursday of the month. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date to boost Christmas shopping in an attempt to aid an economy still troubled by the Great Depression. Thus, Thanksgiving 1917 took place on November 29 rather than November 22.

The Thanksgiving 1917 celebrations were affected by wartime rationing. Except for a handful of laws regulating the purchase of wheat flour and sugar, rationing was largely voluntary. However, it was heavily promoted as a duty to conserve food, especially food needed for the United States military and our allies.

Olympia Thanksgiving reder 230x300Reder & Phillips Grocery Store promised in the November 23, 1917 issue of the Washington Standard newspaper that they had good quality and prices for Thanksgiving staples. However, many people would find turkey too expensive that year. Photo credit: Washington State Library“The Thanksgiving menu…,” the Morning Olympian newspaper reminded cooks the day before the holiday, “is almost an ideal…meal, if the turkey is stuffed with coarse bread stuffing, and the mince pie is omitted. Turkey is really an economical meat. It may be made the basis of innumerable hashes and soups following its first formal appearance.”

Reflecting wartime inflation, the Olympia Daily Recorder newspaper claimed on November 29 that turkey was retailing at forty cents a pound (about $7.31 cents a pound in 2017 dollars). This was too expensive for many people in an era when workers were lucky to earn five dollars a day ($91.41 in 2017 dollars). Local grocery stores reported that chicken, which was much less expensive, was selling more briskly than turkey.

Although electric and gas ranges were coming into use, many families, especially in the more rural parts of the county, continued to use wood stoves. Also, since electric refrigerators had not been invented yet, cooks used iceboxes to keep some food cold. Thus, most cooks did their shopping right before the holiday. Small grocery stores heavily advertised. Chain supermarkets did not arrive in the area until the 1920s. 

Prices for most Thanksgiving staples in 1917 seem very inexpensive today. Washington cranberries sold at George’s Grocery (4th and Columbia) for seventeen-and-a-half cents per pound. At Eli’s Cash Grocery (4th and Adams) you could buy Sun Maid Raisins (perfect for mince pies) for ten cents a package. Howey’s Cash Grocery (119 East Fourth Avenue) sold pumpkins (for pumpkin pies) for three cents per pound. Less popular today, Reder & Phillips (located in the historic White Building at 211 East Fourth Avenue) advertised canned Mrs. Porter’s Plum Pudding for thirty cents a can.

Due to the war, Thanksgiving celebrations took on a particularly patriotic character in 1917. On November 24, the Chambers Prairie School in Thurston County held a Thanksgiving program and basket social. Following a student program of songs, recitations and dialogues, basket lunches were auctioned off, and the audience went to the basement to eat, sip coffee and dance.

Read the whole article on the Thurston TALK web site:

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