Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale. She is seated in a chair and the image depicts her from the waist up. Her hair is dark and shoulder length and she wears a dark dress and a light colored piece of lace scarf on her head.
Sarah Josepha Hale was the editor for Godey’s Lady’s Book for four decades. During that time she presided over publication of a wide range of topics including short stories, fashion and recipes, and lobbied for the holiday of Thanksgiving. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Although inspired by a 1621 feast shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving traditions emerged from more than two centuries of celebrations influenced by social classes, ethnic groups, and the rise of consumer culture. Some of the most popular practices of Thanksgiving by the twenty-first century originated in Philadelphia.

In colonial America, days dedicated to giving thanks occurred at various times throughout the year and often reflected the traditions and desires of the regions that observed them. The end of the Revolutionary War provided ample opportunity for celebration across the new Republic, and days of public thanks-giving were declared nationally and locally. In Philadelphia, the Continental Congress declared a day of thanks-giving in October 1781 to honor the recent victory at the Battle of Yorktown and again on December 11, 1783, to celebrate the peace treaty and the formal end of the war. For the 1783 celebration, the Committee of Arrangements asked Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), one of Philadelphia’s most popular artists, to create a triumphal arch “illuminated by about twelve-hundred lamps” to stand outside the State House as the celebration’s center piece. Although delayed by a fireworks accident that damaged the work in progress, by 1784 the completed arch “afforded great satisfaction to many thousand spectators.”

During the 1790s, while Philadelphia served as capital of the United States, Presidents George Washington (1732-99) and John Adams (1735-1826) issued ad hoc declarations for national days of thanks-giving. However, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was more common for states, cities, or other localities to hold thanks-giving celebrations in their own ways at any given time during the year. Philadelphia’s upper- and middle-class families celebrated days of thanks-giving in ways similar to New Englanders, by having small family dinners and attending church services to thank God for the blessings in their lives. Working-class Philadelphians developed a reputation for rowdy, drunken, carnivalesque street celebrations. The parading groups, who called themselves Fantastics or Fantasticals, were often of Irish or English background and copied many of the English mumming parade techniques. For the most part, the upper classes accepted the parades and enjoyed watching, if not partaking in, the festivities through most of the nineteenth century.

Thanksgiving Campaign

Support for a national Thanksgiving holiday grew from a campaign launched by Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), editor of the Philadelphia-published Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale, a native of New Hampshire who became the magazine’s editor in 1837, believed that a national day dedicated to giving thanks might unify the country at a time of intensifying sectional divisiveness. Using her position at the popular monthly publication, Hale wrote to governors across the country and in U.S. territories to make a case for a holiday celebrating “the gratified hospitality, the obliging civility, and unaffected happiness of the American family.” Initially, Hale’s efforts did not do much to boost support for the domestic holiday. By the 1850s only New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the state of Texas regularly celebrated.

Color scan of a lithograph, depicting a group of about 10 young men and a few women, standing outside a snow-roofed house. Some men have guns and one dead turkey lays on the snowy ground. Mountains, trees, and another hunting party can be seen in the distance.
As Thanksgiving gained popularity across the country, many Americans looked to New England’s early celebrations for inspiration and affirmation of heritage. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Hale’s initiative achieved success in the midst of the Civil War, in the aftermath of Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. In October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), whom Hale had been petitioning for years, declared a national day of thanksgiving to take place each November. Although Southern states took longer than Northern states to accept and participate in the new national tradition, Thanksgiving became increasingly popular, and Hale’s vision for a domestic holiday centered on family and home life took root.

As the holiday took on a more sober tone, members of the upper classes became increasingly upset by the loud, drunken celebrations of the working class in cities like Philadelphia and New York. Among wealthier individuals, organized football games became an alternative to rowdy parades. The first Thanksgiving Day football game, played between the Young American Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club, took place in Philadelphia in 1869. A few years later, the Intercollegiate Football Association scheduled its first championship game for Thanksgiving Day in 1876. By the turn of the century roughly 10,000 college and high school football teams were playing games on Thanksgiving Day. In Philadelphia, rivals Central High School and Northeast High School competed for the Wooden Horse Trophy on Thanksgiving Day. This annual competition began in 1892 and continued into the twenty-first century as Philadelphia’s oldest high school rivalry. In Southern New Jersey, Palmyra High School and Burlington City High School have been rivals since 1908 and have competed on Thanksgiving Day since the 1930s.

The Holiday Becomes Secularized

By the early twentieth century, Thanksgiving traditions were firmly embedded in American culture. The Catholic Church initially opposed the celebration of Thanksgiving as a Protestant religious holiday. However, the holiday became secularized as new groups of immigrants arrived during the early twentieth century. Schools taught Thanksgiving traditions to children, whose families then reinforced their American identities by participating in the national observance and demonstrating their allegiance to American culture.

By the 1920s, Catholic and Jewish households readily accepted the holiday, and intertwined their own religious practices, like service to the poor, with the Thanksgiving Day tradition. Immigrant families infused the traditional meal of roasted turkey with their own contributions by introducing new side dishes and cooking styles. Some Chinese American families steamed their turkeys and then stuffed them with traditional rice mixtures, while Greek families added pine nuts and spices to their stuffing and many Italian families enjoyed seafood and pasta dishes.

As the holiday grew in popularity, new traditions emerged. The first formal Thanksgiving Day parade, held in Philadelphia in 1920, marked the beginning of the holiday’s commercialization and cemented its ties to the Christmas season. Eager for the Christmas shopping season to begin, Ellis Gimbel (1865-1950) of Gimbels Department Store organized the first parade to lead shoppers from City Hall to the store at Ninth and Market Streets. In the grand finale, Santa Claus climbed a ladder into the building, where he greeted children eager to give him their wish lists. The Gimbels parade influenced Macy’s to begin its own parade in New York City in 1924, and by the mid-twentieth century Thanksgiving Day parades, often sponsored by department stores, became a tradition in towns and cities across the country. Over the next few decades Thanksgiving became increasingly commercialized as the official beginning of the Christmas season. By the second half of the twentieth century, the following Friday became known as “Black Friday” among retailers and consumers, and many stores offered large discounts and one-day sales to kick off their holiday shopping season.

Photograph taken from the middle of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, looking towards City Hall, which is in the distance. A large crowd covers the street and a colorful Madeiline balloon floats over the crowd. Colorful flags for various countries line the parkway on either side, elevated above the crowd.
By the twenty-first century, Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving parade continued to attract large crowds, as seen in this 2013 photograph. Area schools and institutions participated in the procession, as did local businesses and media corporations. (Photograph by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)

New Parade Sponsors

As department stores declined in popularity the Thanksgiving Day Parade continued, but with new sponsors, routes, and audiences. After Gimbels closed in 1986, Philadelphia television station WPVI (6ABC) took over production of the parade. The parade retained its commercial character from sponsorship by Reading, Pennsylvania-based department store Boscov’s from 1986 to 2007; IKEA (a Swedish company with a flagship store in Conshohocken) from 2008 to 2011; and Dunkin’ Donuts beginning in 2011. However, its route shifted away from Philadelphia’s traditional Center City business district to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Culminating at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the televised event provided ample marketing opportunities for sponsors and advertisers seeking to reach the estimated 500,000 households tuning in to watch the 3.5-hour parade. Around the region, many stores opened earlier and earlier to accommodate Black Friday shoppers. With so many retail employees required to report to work on Thursday evening, many families celebrated in the late morning or chose to celebrate on a different day.

A reflection of American values, Thanksgiving Day traditions evolved over time while still retaining the initial celebratory, familial, and domestic themes of the original thanks-giving feasts. Philadelphia, a city of many firsts, contributed many innovations to Thanksgiving Day traditions as they came to be practiced across the nation.

Mikaela Maria is an editorial, research, and digital publishing assistant for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. She received her M.A. from Rutgers University and works as a public historian and museum professional in Philadelphia. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Sarah Josepha Hale

Library Company of Philadelphia

Sarah Josepha Hale was the editor for Godey’s Lady’s Book for four decades. During that time she presided over publication of a wide range of topics including short stories, fashion and recipes, and lobbied for the holiday of Thanksgiving. Though she worked for the first magazine in the country dedicated to women's issues, she opposed women’s involvement in politics. Her belief was that if women got involved in such issues they would lose their pristine moral sensibility. Instead, to encourage widespread participation in the Thanksgiving holiday, she pushed for a wholesome, family-oriented domestic celebration that women across the country were to be responsible for preparing and hosting, thus fulfilling their primary roles as homemakers and matriarchs.

Shooting Turkeys for Thanksgiving Day

Library Company of Philadelphia

This hand-colored lithograph, published by Philadelphian J. Childs in the 1860s, depicts a classic Thanksgiving scene. Though produced in Philadelphia, the scene is set in New England and is captioned “Shooting Turkeys for Thanksgiving-Day: Written by a New England Patriot, 1765” and is followed by a poem about America’s economic prosperity. As Thanksgiving gained popularity across the country, many Americans looked to New England’s early celebrations for inspiration and affirmation of heritage. This image, though set almost a century before the holiday’s official creation, is not unusual, as Americans sought a sense of identity and tradition and the holiday evolved.

South Philadelphia High School, Thanksgiving Day Victory, 1934

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Football has been linked to Thanksgiving traditions since the sport’s initial rise in popularity in the late nineteenth century. Several Philadelphia football teams compete on Thanksgiving Day and many games are a continuation of rivalries of decades, some even over a century old. In this 1934 photograph, Anthony Giannantonio accepts a silver trophy from Bernard Samuel, a Philadelphia city councilman. Giannantonio was captain of Southern High School’s football team and led the team to victory over Southeast Catholic High School, 20-0, at their annual Thanksgiving Day game.

Southeast Catholic was renamed Bishop Neumann High School in 1955; Southern High School later became known as South Philadelphia High School.

Operation Thanksgiving

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

By the 1960s, Thanksgiving was a major holiday, celebrated widely across the United States. As holiday traditions evolved, the giving of charity and aid to the poor became a popular Thanksgiving practice. The Philadelphia Police Department began Operation Thanksgiving in 1969. In this photograph from 1971, police officers from all over the city gather to give turkeys and other holiday dinner staples to families in need. Operation Thanksgiving continued into the twenty-first century and in 2013 the Police Department reported donations of over $11,000 and enough food to feed 400 families and individuals.

Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1976

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

As the Thanksgiving Day Parade grew in popularity, many groups from Philadelphia and the surrounding area joined the procession. Many schools participated in the parade and sent marching bands, cheerleaders, and color guards to represent their district. In this photograph from 1976, members of the Upper Dublin High School marching band twirled rifles and flags.

Thanksgiving Day Parade Route, 1981

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The first Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade began at Philadelphia’s City Hall and ended a few blocks away on Ninth and Market Streets, outside the Gimbels flagship store. As the parade grew in popularity the growing number of participants encouraged organizers to extend the route. This map shows a vastly longer route for the 1981 parade. By the late twentieth century the Benjamin Franklin Parkway became the main parade route, with the staging area at the Philadelphia Musuem of Art and the procession going down the Parkway, around City Hall, and finally arrived at Gimbels Department Store. By 1986, Gimbels had closed and the store was no longer the parade’s end point. Instead, the route was reversed, and in the twenty-first century the parade was staged at Market and Twentieth Streets before moving onto the Parkway and ending at the Art Museum steps.

Thanksgiving Day Parade, 2013

Visit Philadelphia

In the early twenty-first century, Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving parade continued to attract large crowds, as in this 2013 photograph. Area schools and institutions participated in the procession, as did local businesses and media corporations. Though annual changes were made as to participants, line-up order, and the array of colorful balloons, Santa Claus traditionally brought up the rear of the parade and symbolically ushered in the Christmas season, as he has done sine Ellis Gimbel’s original parade in 1920.

(Photograph by M. Kennedy)

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Time Periods



Related Reading

Baker, James W., and Peter J. Gomes. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. Durham, N.H. : Hanover N.H.: University of New Hampshire, 2009.

Glassberg, David. “Public Ritual and Cultural Hierarchy: Philadelphia’s Civic Celebrations at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 107, no. 3 (July 1, 1983): 421–48.

Greninger, Edwin T. “Thanksgiving: An American Holiday.” Social Science 54, no. 1 (January 1, 1979): 3–15.

Lisicky, Michael J. Gimbels Has It! The History Press, 2011.

O’Brien, Rick., and Inquirer Columnist. “A Look at Thanksgiving Games.”, November 26, 2014.

Pilgrims and Parades: A Brief History of Thanksgiving.”, November 24, 2011.

Pleck, Elizabeth. “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States.” Journal of Social History 32, no. 4 (July 1, 1999): 773–89.

Purcell, Sarah J. Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

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