If you eat turkey this week, give thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale (1788 — 1879). Why? She’s the reason turkey is the feature on Thanksgiving. Fact is, she’s largely responsible for Thanksgiving itself.
Sarah, a self-taught schoolteacher, met David Hale at her father’s tavern in Newport, New Hampshire, in 1811. They married two years later and went on to have five children. David died 11 years later, causing Sarah to wear black for the rest of her life.
So? Stick with me.
With financial support of her late husband’s Freemason lodge, she published her first collection of poems. Five years later, her first novel was published, “Northwood: Life North and South,” making her one of our first female novelists, and the first to write a book about slavery (she was against it).
So, she was a widow, an abolitionist and one of our first female novelists. What’s that got to do with Thanksgiving? Stay with me.
The Rev. John Blake, owner of the “Ladies Magazine,” asked her to move to Boston and become editor. She did in 1828 and, in 1830, she published “Poems for our Children,” which included her original “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” (originally titled “Mary’s Lamb”).
When Hale was teaching school in Newport, she was surprised one morning as one of her students, Mary, came into class with the lamb. Fearing it would be distracting, she “turned him out.” The lamb stayed outside all day, then ran to Mary for attention and protection. The other youngsters wanted to know why the lamb loved Mary so much, and the poem was born.
OK, I digress. That’s not it either.
Louis Antoine Godey of Philadelphia sought to hire Hale as editor of his “Godey’s Ladies Book.” So, he bought the “Ladies Magazine” from Blake and merged it with his journal and asked Hale to remain. She did, but continued to work from Boston while her youngest son attended Harvard.
OK, she was an early remote worker, but that wasn’t it either. She remained editor of Godey’s for 40 years, retiring in 1877, when she was almost 90.
Add long-term editor to the list, but that’s not the thing either.
Godey’s magazine had an unimaginable influence. It had the largest circulation of its time, with over 150,000 subscribers. Both Hale and the magazine were considered the largest influencers of the day, long before social media. And Hale wrote many food articles.
So, write down foodie influencer.
What does this have to do with Thanksgiving?
Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History curator of food history, Paula J. Johnson, claims that Hale was “key in bringing together and popularizing the Thanksgiving holiday with the menu featuring turkey and stuffing.”
Yet, there wasn’t a national Thanksgiving at the time as it was only popular in New England. States could schedule it if they wished, but it was largely unknown in the American South.
So, she began advocating for a national Thanksgiving Day in 1846 and kept at it for 17 years. She lobbied presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Lincoln, until Lincoln paid attention. She convinced him to support establishing a national holiday in 1863 on the third Thursday of November at a time when our only national holidays were Washington’s birthday and Independence Day.
This new national holiday was considered a unifying day after the stress of the Civil War. One hitch. The Civil War wasn’t over, and Lincoln’s decree explicitly said it was to celebrate the bounties that continued to fall on the Union and for military success.
So, Thanksgiving didn’t begin to take hold until after Reconstruction in the 1870s.
Even then, it wasn’t mandated. It wasn’t until 1941 that congress decreed the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. Even that wasn’t noticed. FDR signed the Thanksgiving bill 10 days before the attack at Pearl Harbor.
So, let’s be thankful for Sarah Josepha Hale, foodie influencer and Thanksgiving proponent. Her persistence was responsible for Lincoln’s decree and her food articles influenced all to celebrate with turkey.
And while you’re at it, turn on some football.