Following Congress' recommendation, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a day of public thanksgiving, the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated under the new Constitution.
New Hampshire author and editor Sara Josepha Hale, active in women benevolent societies and well known as the socially influential editor of Godeys Ladys Book, petitioned Congress and five presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln to create a national annual holiday for Thanksgiving. Celebrating and giving thanks for abundant autumn harvests was an established New England tradition by the mid-19th century. The governors of each state issued holiday proclamations that varied in date from state to state and from year to year. Mrs. Hale's long campaign to create a unified national Thanksgiving holiday met with success when President Abraham Lincoln recognized the symbolic wartime significance of the commemoration.
President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November to be regularly commemorated as Thanksgiving Day. His Thanksgiving holiday proclamation implored the nation to heal its wounds and restore peace, harmony, tranquility the the nation.
The tradition of pardoning White House turkeys has been traced to President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 clemency to a turkey recorded in an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks who noted, "a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincolns son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tads] plea was admitted and the turkey's life spared."
A large Thanksgiving dinner gathering included President Rutherford B. and Mrs. Hayes, Colonels W.K. Rogers and O.L. Pruden, the president's private secretaries, and William H. Crook and Charles L. Chapman, executive clerks, and the doormen with their families. After the conclusion of this dinner, the Hayes retired to the Red Room to sing hymns and invited their cooks and the African-American staff to enjoy their own Thanksgiving meal in the State Dining Room.
President Chester A. Arthur proclaimed, "The prevalence of health, the fullness of the harvests, the stability of peace and order, the growth of fraternal feeling, the spread of intelligence and learning, the continued enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, all these and countless other blessings are cause for reverent rejoicing."
First Lady Ida McKinley directed the White House chef to prepare a plain Thanksgiving dinner that included a 26-pound turkey from Rhode Island stuffed with oysters, new potatoes from Idaho given to the McKinleys by a friend, cranberry, celery, mince, and pumpkin pie.
After a vigorous morning horseback ride out into northwest Washington with First Lady Edith Roosevelt and a party of six friends, President Theodore Roosevelt spent a quiet afternoon at the White House before a 7:30 p.m. Thanksgiving dinner in the State Dining Room. On hearing that workmen building the new west wing annex could not take off the holiday because of their tight work schedule, the president insisted that the men be served an early afternoon turkey dinner.
President William Howard Taft anxiously awaited the arrival of a big mince pie from his favorite aunt, Delia Torrey, of Millbury, Massachusetts. It arrived in plenty of time for a Thanksgiving dinner featuring a turkey from Horace Vose, the Rhode Island "Poultry King" who had been sending turkeys to grace the presidential Thanksgiving table for years.
President Woodrow Wilson spent Thanksgiving at the Williamstown, Massachusetts home of his daughter Jessie and her husband Francis B. Sayre. Upon arrival at the train station Wilson was greeted by students from Williams College and the first snowflakes of the season. On Thanksgiving morning Wilson sharpened his appetite for Thanksgiving dinner by taking a sleigh ride.
President Woodrow Wilson's first wartime Thanksgiving dinner was a fairly economical one: cream of oyster soup with slices of hot buttered toast; turkey with trimmings and vegetables (albeit without cranberries); and pumpkin pie. First Lady Edith Wilson wanted to abide by food conservation programs spearheaded by Herbert Hoover, head of the U.S. Food Administration. In the evening the Wilsons attended the D.C. Auxiliary of the Navy Relief Societys ball at Rauscher's at Connecticut Avenue and L Streets, N.W.; a catering establishment featuring an upstairs ballroom.
Five days after the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson said in his Thanksgiving proclamation, "This year we have special and moving cause to be grateful and to rejoice. God has in His good pleasure given us peace. Complete victory has brought us, not peace alone, but the confident promise of a new day as well in which justice shall replace force and jealous intrigue among the nations."
President Calvin Coolidge delivered his Thanksgiving proclamation over the radio at 8:15 p.m. to a network of stations across the country before an evening musical program that culminated with Mozarts opera The Magic Flute.
The Hoovers enjoyed a quiet Thanksgiving dinner at home with their son Allan, on break from studies at Harvard University. The president started the day exercising with his "Medicine Ball Cabinet" and attending church with Mrs. Hoover. It was a big sports day in Washington as crowds flocked to a football clash between Catholic University and George Washington at Brookland Stadium (Catholic won 48 to 6) and to the $10,000 Thanksgiving Day Handicap at Bowie Race Track.
Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to celebrate Thanksgiving outside the United States when he had Thanksgiving dinner in the south Atlantic on board the U.S.S. Indianapolis on his way to the Inter-American Peace Conference in Buenos Aires. The turkey had been raised in Utah and flown to Washington before a train trip to Charleston, South Carolina and a rendezvous with the president on board the ship. President Roosevelt shared the feast with the captain, executive officer, navigator and chaplain of the Indianapolis.
With five Thursdays in November that year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving forward by one week to Thursday, November 23 to extend the shopping period for Christmas to boost retail sales. The experiment was called a "rabbit trick" and proved unpopular with the public and retailers.
President Roosevelt signed legislation (H.J. Res 41) designating the fourth Thursday in November as the federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.
After reading the first wartime Thanksgiving proclamation in 25 years over the radio, President Roosevelt led the nation in prayer for a return of the days of peace. The White House dinner menu included clam cocktail, clear soup, roast turkey with chestnut stuffing and cranberry sauce, Spanish corn, small sausages and beans, sweet potato cones, grapefruit salad, pumpkin pie and cheese, coffee, and ice cream.
President Harry Truman was the first president to receive a turkey from the Poultry and Egg National Board and National Turkey Federation. Another turkey presentation to President Truman took place on December 23, 1947. This 35-pound dressed champion turkey and was a gift from Oregon Senator Wayne Morse. Although Truman did not start the turkey pardon tradition, his administration made turkey presentations a presidential media event that continues to today.
President and Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Augusta, Georgia, where the president played golf. They stayed in the newly built Mamie's Cabin located near the clubhouse of the Augusta National Golf Club. At Mamie's Cabin, the walls were hung with photographs of all the 18 previous homes the Eisenhowers had stayed at between their marriage in 1916 and their move to the White House 37 years later. As the Eisenhowers began partaking of a 39-pound turkey from Nebraska, the president noted that U.S. military personnel were no longer dying in Korea and expressed hope that may we never again have to have our loved ones go off to war.
A majestic 55-pound white turkey with a sign around its neck reading "Good Eating, Mr. President!" received a reprieve from President John F. Kennedy in the company of Minority Leader Senator Everett Dirksen for the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation. "We'll just let this one grow," said the president, asking that the bird be returned to its California breeding farm. White House press secretary Pierre Salinger announced that the Kennedys would spend their Thanksgiving holiday at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a tradition for the Kennedy clan; tragically, it was a journey that was never undertaken.
First Lady Pat Nixon filled in for the president at the annual presentation of the Thanksgiving turkey, this year two live California turkeys from the Poultry and Egg National Board and National Turkey Federation. The Nixon family would not eat the live birds but dined instead on two ready-to-cook frozen turkeys were also presented by the poultry and egg representatives. President Richard Nixon passed on the photo opportunity to spend the afternoon visiting the Washington Redskins practice facility.
As Thanksgiving approached, the fate of the hostages held in Iran weighed heavily on the president and all Americans. President Jimmy Carter requested special prayers at churches, synagogues, and public meetings, noting, "We join with people of all faiths throughout the world who adhere to fundamental principles of human rights and international law. We are united with them in seeking an end to acts of terrorism against innocent people."
President Ronald and First Lady Nancy Reagan traveled to their 688-acre ranch 30 miles north of Santa Barbara, California, to join family members for the Thanksgiving holidays. A local pilot, Pete Cottle, flew over Rancho del Cielo with a 120-foot red-and-white banner that read: Happy Thanksgiving Ron and Nancy. In addition to turkey, the Reagan family enjoyed a menu of cranberries, corn bread dressing, salad, mashed potatoes, monkey bread, string beans with almonds and pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream.
After many years of turkey gifts and presentations to the White House, President George H.W. Bush officially pardoned an unnamed, 50-pound turkey, firmly establishing the tradition that is followed to this day.
President and Mrs. Clinton spent Thanksgiving Day with family and friends at Camp David. The Thanksgiving Day menu included turkey and dressing with bread stuffing, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry mold, relish tray (pickles, celery, tomatoes, green onions, green and black olives, carrots), fruit salad, cranberry salad, pecan and pumpkin pies.
The Bush family enjoyed a quiet Thanksgiving at Camp David in Maryland and tucked into a traditional turkey dinner with jellied cranberry molds, whipped sweet potato souffl and pumpkin mousse trifle. From Camp David President, Bush called U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq and aboard the USS Eisenhower, extending Thanksgiving greetings and thanking the soldiers, sailors, Air Force personnel, and Marines for their service and dedication.
President Barack Obama pardoned a North Carolina turkey named Courage as daughters Sasha and Malia looked on. "I'm told Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson actually ate their turkeys," Obama observed. "Today I am pleased to announce that thanks to the interventions of Malia and Sasha . . . Courage will . . . be spared this terrible and delicious fate." Courage was retired to Disneyland after leading its Thanksgiving Day parade there.
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About the white house historical association
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy envisioned a restored White House that conveyed a sense of history through its decorative and fine arts. She sought to inspire Americans, especially children, to explore and engage with American history and its presidents. In 1961, the White House Historical Association was established to support her vision to preserve and share the Executive Mansion’s legacy for generations to come. Supported entirely by private resources, the Association’s mission is to assist in the preservation of the state and public rooms, fund acquisitions for the White House permanent collection, and educate the public on the history of the White House. Since its founding, the Association has given more than $45 million to the White House in fulfillment of its mission.
To learn more about the White House Historical Association, please visit WhiteHouseHistory.org.
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