The strangest Thanksgiving ever, in 1939:
You hear a lot these days about how much businesses dislike “uncertainty.” It’s too hard, goes the refrain, to figure out how financial reform is going to play out, or how much heath care reform is going to cost. Better to play it safe and not hire anyone.
But at least today’s businesses are reasonably assured of a stable calendar. During the latter years of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, this was not the case. In August of 1939, President Roosevelt was taking a brief summer fishing trip on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada, just over the border from southeastern Maine. A handful of journalists were gathered in the living room of the red cottage that had belonged to the president’s mother. After some discussion of the tensions in Europe—this was August 14, less than three weeks before the German invasion of Poland—FDR said to the newsmen: “Oh! I will give you a story I had entirely forgotten. I have been having from a great many people, for the last six years, complaints that Thanksgiving Day came too close to Christmas. Now this sounds silly.” But the president went on to explain that the tradition that had begun with Abraham Lincoln of annually celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November created a time window between Labor Day and Thanksgiving that was too long without a holiday, and a time window between Thanksgiving and Christmas that was too short.
The first issue the President had already fixed, by making Columbus Day a national holiday in 1937. To address the second one, he would simply move Thanksgiving to an earlier date. “The stores and people who work, retail people, etc. are very anxious to have [Thanksgiving] set forward,” he explained. And 1939 provided an ideal opportunity for shifting what FDR labeled “a perfectly movable feast.” There were five Thursdays in November that year, and so moving Thanksgiving from the 30th to the 23rd would make it not much earlier than it had been the previous year (the 24th), and yet give the retailers the extra week between Thanksgiving and Christmas they were clamoring for.
In keeping with the light, summer mood, there was only one question from the press: “This year, Mr. President?” The answer was quick: “This year, yes,” and then the President went back to arguing that there is “nothing sacred about” the date of the celebration, noting that “in the early days of the Republic, it was held sometime in October.”
The seeming spontaneity of the announcement belied the fact that the remarks had been scripted for FDR a week before. One of his aides, Lowell Mellett, a former Scripps-Howard newsman who would go on to head the movie division of the Office of War Information, had in fact provided the President with different versions of how he might present his plan to the public. Moreover, as FDR indicated in his press conference, the issue had come up before. In 1933 and 1934, November also had five Thursdays, and a diverse group of merchants had conducted a public campaign to have the date changed; the most prominent push had come from the National Retail Dry Goods Association. But the administration was far too busy trying to implement the National Industrial Recovery Act, and rebuffed requests to change the date.
For all the years of considering the question, however, no one in the administration seems to have given much thought as to the logistics of moving a major holiday. This left them stunningly, comically unprepared for how the country would react, especially given just three months notice. In early July, the President drafted a letter he wanted to send to each state Governor asking “your personal thought” about moving the holiday—not to the second-to-last Thursday of November, but rather to Monday, November 15th. (FDR had long held that Mondays made the best holidays, because workers could get a three-day weekend.) “I am saying nothing about it until I have heard from the Governors,” FDR wrote.
The Governors’ responses would likely have kept FDR from making the change, or at a minimum persuaded him to begin the new observance in 1940 rather than immediately. But the letters were never sent. And so prior to Roosevelt’s Campobello bombshell a month later, essentially no one—not Governors, not clergymen, not even the retailers who’d dreamt up the idea—knew that Thanksgiving in 1939 would come a week early.
It’s hard to name a group of Americans who weren’t thrown off by the change in date. Pleasing businessmen had been FDR’s stated goal, and many of the large department stores hailed the move; the president of Lord and Taylor predicted that the shift could create an extra billion dollars in additional commerce. But business rarely speaks with a single voice, and FDR angered quite a few industries by giving so little advance notice. Food distributors, for example, had production and shipping schedules set for months, and in some cases they couldn’t be moved. A week makes a difference in the lifespan of an early navel orange, noted the Chamber of Commerce of Lindsay, California, which complained that the crop would not be ready in time for the earlier date, and thus no one would be eating oranges on Thanksgiving. “Cutting off one week of this valuable holiday market will cost shippers of this and adjoining districts many thousands of dollars,” its telegram said.
More urgent complaints came from companies that printed and distributed calendars. Their 1940 products had already been produced, and they now faced the prospect of selling calendars with the wrong date for an important national holiday two years in a row. “This is a great hardship on our part as we have already printed over three million Calendar Pads for 1940 with the date as the custom had been, the last Thursday in November,” wrote the president of APT Lithographic. The president of the Symphony Orchestra of Albany—where FDR had served as governor—tried to speak for many, writing the President: “Literally thousands of organizations throughout the country who are forced to arrange definite dates, often a year in advance, will suffer by this unexpected change.”
Some of the loudest grumbling came from colleges and high schools that had scheduled Thanksgiving football games and other festivities, and now scrambled to see if different plans could be made. The coach of Ouachita College made his protest explicitly political, telling the Associated Press “We will vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football,” which, in what was then solidly Democratic Arkansas, bordered on treason.
Even ordinary citizens were baffled and outraged; thousands wrote and sent telegrams to the White House to complain. Many had given little thought to why this quasi-sacred holiday was celebrated on the day that it always had been, and thus expressed disbelief that the President—or indeed anyone—had the power to shift the day. “You can no more change my day of Thanksgiving than you can change the shape of the moon,” wrote a man from Darby, Pennsylvania.
But one group was in a position to do more than gripe: the 48 state Governors. Since there had never been federal legislation making Thanksgiving a holiday, the existence of a presidential proclamation was not binding on the states. Governors could declare a day of Thanksgiving any day they wanted to, as many states had done going back (at least in New England) to the 17th century. And so nearly half the states simply ignored the White House plan and observed Thanksgiving on the 30th. Thanksgiving 1939 was the most chaotic, most fractured celebration the holiday has ever seen, in the 150 years that it has been observed nationwide. The country was almost evenly split between the two Thanksgivings: 26 states and the District of Columbia carved their turkeys on the earlier day, while 21 states did so on the later day. In Texas, where they both raise turkeys and love football, Governor Lee O’Daniel decided that both days would be official holidays.
In keeping with the polarization that characterized Roosevelt’s entire tenure in office, the split was largely partisan. In New England, where Thanksgiving had been celebrated the longest, all of the governors stuck by the traditional date; then again, all the New England governors were Republicans. Only five Republican governors—in Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—joined with the Democratic governors celebrating Thanksgiving on the 23rd. Perhaps inevitably, the two days became known as “Democrat Thanksgiving” (the 23rd) and “Republican Thanksgiving” (the 30th); some referred to the 23rd as “Franksgiving.” A Peter Arno cartoon in The New Yorker captured the divide perfectly. At an upper-crust Thanksgiving dinner, a woman tells her turkey-toting butler: “Bring Mr. Rogers some bacon and eggs, Bassett. He’s not celebrating till next week.”
Actually, for butlers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the situation was even more complicated. Thursdays were traditionally the day off for domestic workers—butlers, chauffeurs, maids—employed by wealthy Californians. To make up for the fact that many would have to work two consecutive Thursdays they declared a third celebration—dubbed Domestic Workers’ Thanksgiving—on November 16th. English actor Arthur Treacher—the most famous onscreen butler of the day—was the guest of honor at a seven-course dinner and floor show at the Biltmore Ballroom in downtown Los Angeles.
Despite all the confusion, Roosevelt stuck to his guns and insisted that 1940’s Thanksgiving also be moved up a week—that is, on November’s third Thursday (the 21st) instead of the fourth. With Roosevelt resoundingly re-elected in 1940, a few more governors came on board that year; a total of 32 states observed the holiday on the 21st. Yet the bifurcated holiday only added to the strife and confusion. In part because so many 1940 calendars had been distributed showing November 28th as Thanksgiving, surprising numbers of people—state governors, university presidents, schools, lodges, church groups, families planning reunions—were unsure when the “real” Thanksgiving would take place, and wrote the White House to ask. As late as July 1940, the head of the marketing department at Birds Eye Quick-Frozen Turkeys found himself having to politely ask the White House about the right date, “so that we will be able to make some decision as to the purchase of turkeys and to plan our advertising activities more accurately.” The 1942 Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby musical Holiday Inn introduces a Thanksgiving scene with a November calendar with a cartoon turkey sitting comfortably on the last Thursday, who then switches back and forth between that day and the previous week, until he gives up and faces the audience with a shrug.
And after all that strife, the plan didn’t work. New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was generally a supporter of the president’s, and was concerned that FDR was taking all the political heat. So he instructed the city’s commerce commissioner to launch a study into whether sales had gone up or down. When LaGuardia’s comprehensive survey was finished in the spring of 1941, he wrote to the president: “There is no indication from the aggregate sales figures that the Holiday trade during November and December was greater with the observance of the new Thanksgiving date in 1939 and 1940, respectively, than with the date heretofore observed.” What retailers wanted—overwhelmingly—was a single national day, regardless of whether it was the last or second-to-last Thursday in November.
And thus, the administration was forced to retreat. On May 21, 1941, the President admitted in a press conference that his Thanksgiving shopping stimulus experiment “did not work.” Roosevelt had made a firm commitment to the calendar makers to keep 1941’s Thanksgiving where it had been planned, but 1942 would see the restoration of the traditional date. Meanwhile, Congress was motivated to ground Thanksgiving with an official, national piece of legislation. Yet here, too, there was a faction that advocated a simple return to the last Thursday, against those who saw an opportunity to address permanently the issue of late Thanksgiving that had so perturbed America’s retailers. In November, the Senate Judiciary committee changed the wording in a law that had been passed by the House, substituting “fourth” Thursday for “last.”
Although Roosevelt was no longer directly involved in the Thanksgiving debate, the country’s political division clouded the seemingly simple task of picking a Thursday. In Senate debate, veteran Roosevelt nemesis Robert Taft argued that the proposed fourth Thursday raised the question of “whether we are now compromising between the Executive and history.” However, those who agreed with Taft had little stomach for fighting over the day of Thanksgiving once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Both houses agreed to the fourth Thursday, and President Roosevelt signed the bill into law on the Day after Christmas. Even then, a few states stubbornly refused to acknowledge anything but the last Thursday. As late as 1950, five states chose the fifth Thursday in November as their Thanksgiving; only with the nation at war in Korea in 1951 did all Americans once again sit down to the Thanksgiving table on the same day. On the list of things to be thankful for, knowing in advance when a holiday will take place ranks fairly high.