In 1939, a store owner in Kokomo, Indiana hung a sign in the window that read: “Do your shopping now. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.” Anyone in the country would have recognized this as a humorous reference to President Franklin Roosevelt's declaration that Thanksgiving would be observed on the third Thursday of November that year, instead of the fourth. The decision to celebrate a week earlier was not popular for various reasons, including company holidays, school vacations, and college football games, all of which were already scheduled. Others disliked the idea for political reasons, seeing it as just another New Deal scheme. In fact, the polls indicated that sixty percent of Americans were opposed to moving the holiday. Since the presidential declaration was not legally binding, twenty-three states ignored the new date of November 23, choosing to observe on the traditional date a week later. Oddly, Colorado and Texas officially celebrated on both days.
Abraham Lincoln declared that the first national day of thanksgiving be held on the third Thursday of November in 1863. His successor, President Andrew Johnson changed the holiday to December, but President Ulysses S. Grant moved it back to the original date, where it stayed for next seventy years. However, in 1939, the autumnal holiday fell on the last day of the month, causing the nation’s large retailers to become worried about the shortened Christmas shopping season. (At the time, advertising goods for Christmas before Thanksgiving was considered inappropriate.)
The retailers had reason to be nervous. The economic recovery from the Great Depression had been tenuous, especially after the economy took a second dip in 1937, when Congress tried to balance the budget before the nation was sufficiently back on its feet. Appealing to the president’s desire to stimulate commerce, the National Retail Dry Goods Association requested that the holiday be changed to the third Thursday, arguing that sales would be higher if the shopping season was increased by seven days.1 Roosevelt agreed with this proposal and stuck with the new timing for three years. His decision caused never-ending controversy and confusion, reflected on holiday menus and other types of ephemera, at a time when there were more important things happening in the world to worry about.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program for unemployed young men, celebrated in accordance with the president’s wishes. The 1939 menu shown below comes from Camp Snowline, situated midway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, near the Eldorado National Forest in California.
Lockheed’s reassembly operation at Liverpool, England also observed Thanksgiving on the national date, as shown on the menu below. The company was just then completing its first contract to deliver two hundred and fifty Hudson bombers to the RAF.2 Lockheed created the Hudson by adding a bomb bay and three machine guns to its Super Electra, making it one of the first aircraft of American design used in World War II, which had started in September after Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
Turning their attention away from the war in Europe for the moment, Republicans denounced the change in Thanksgiving, calling it an affront to the memory of Lincoln. The mayor of Atlantic City dubbed the new holiday “Franksgiving.” Not surprisingly, legal battles erupted as to who had the right to declare this holiday. The attorney general in Oregon captured the spirit of the opposition in verse:
Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one.
Until we hear from Washington.
The menu below from Drake-Wiltshire Hotel in San Francisco also shows that Thanksgiving was celebrated on the third Thursday in California that year.
Some restaurateurs recognized the confusing situation as an opportunity, such as the enterprising manager of the Palmer House in Chicago who hosted two Thanksgiving dinners in 1939. The menu below has a notice reading, “In deference to our many out-of-town guests whose home states did not observe Thanksgiving on November 23rd, the Palmer House presents its Thanksgiving menu again today, Thursday, Nov. 30th.”
The special dinner at the Palmer House is $1.65, or about a third higher than the one served at the Drake-Wilshire Hotel. By contrast, the set dinner in the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel is $4.00, reflecting the fancier dishes that precede the traditional roast turkey and trimmings. The menu shown below also offers a complete a la carte selection.
FDR again set the date as the third Thursday of November in 1940. This time thirty-two states went along with the president’s Thanksgiving proclamation. However, the issue seemed no less contentious, perhaps because it was an election year.
Using the controversy as one of his campaign themes, Wendell Willkie, a Wall Street-based industrialist running on the Republican ticket, declared that there would be a day of thanksgiving if the voters elected him, instead of giving Roosevelt a third term in office. However, Willkie was equally unclear about his own so-called “Thanksgiving Day”—this campaign button shows it as Election Day (Nov. 5), while his campaign literature below puts it on the day after the election (Nov. 6).
The menu below from the Rathskeller in Cincinnati’s Gibson Hotel is dated November 21, indicating that Ohio was among the thirty-two states that went along with the president in 1940.
Howard Johnson’s served its special Thanksgiving dinner on November 28, reflecting the fact that most of its restaurants were in New England, where the states were unwilling to change their long-standing custom.3 By then, the traditional date was called the “Republican Thanksgiving.” Interestingly, the dinner at Howard Johnson’s was ten cents higher than the more lavish one at the Gibson Hotel.
Decorated with an actual stalk of wheat (now missing its kernels after seventy-one years), this menu from the Golden Pheasant in San Francisco is dated November 20, 1941.
United Airlines handed their passengers a “Thanksgiving Menu” during flights on both November 20 and 27 that year.
The U.S. Submarine Base in the Territory of Hawaii also avoided the politics of the matter, simply dating their menu “Thanksgiving 1941.” By this time, however, the issue was a moot point, for Roosevelt had already announced that the national holiday would go back to the traditional date in 1942. Wanting to insure that it would never be changed again, Congress established the fourth Thursday in November as a legal holiday, passing the bill only two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December.
As it turned out, the extended shopping season did not boost sales; Christmas spending stayed about the same. However, the pattern reportedly changed. In those states that celebrated in the third week of November, retail spending was more evenly distributed throughout the shopping season. In those that celebrated on the traditional fourth Thursday, most shoppers waited until the week before Christmas.
1. Fred Lazarus, Jr., founder of the Federated Department Stores (later Macy’s), is credited with convincing Roosevelt to push Thanksgiving back a week to expand the shopping season.
2. The Hudson bomber was nicknamed the “Old Boomerang” for its ability to withstand enemy fire and safely return home. The manufacturing facilities and support bases in Liverpool and Ireland, would assemble, modify, and repair about 22,500 aircraft of all types during the war.
3. In addition to those in New England, the other states that adhered to the last Thursday in November in 1940 were Pennsylvania, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nevada.