Rationing Thanksgiving Dinner during World War I

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—just in time for Thanksgiving—Gena searches old newspapers to learn about the Thanksgiving dinners our ancestors had during World War I.

For many Americans, the word Thanksgiving conjures up images of family, a bountiful feast, and spending the day eating. However, Americans weren’t always encouraged to eat everything and anything on Thanksgiving Day. During both World Wars, food was rationed and families on the home front were encouraged to make do with less. So what did that mean for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner?

photo of a poster for the U.S. home front during WWI urging households to conserve sugar

Poster: sugar conservation, from the U.S. Food Administration, 1917-1919. Credit: U.S. National Archives.

Food Rationing during Wartime

Food rationing is typically associated with World War II, when ration stamps were used—but World War I had its own version of rationing—and this was especially true at Thanksgiving time. In the First World War, families were encouraged to limit some foods so that the United States could feed its soldiers and allies. Overseas, our allies’ lands were devastated by the extensive fighting, and their ability to maintain crop production was limited.

Using propaganda posters, recipe booklets, and informational articles, American women were encouraged to alter the family’s diets by participating in such endeavors as “Meatless Monday,” growing a garden, and limiting the use of sugar. The government led the way in urging Americans to think about what they ate. Herbert Hoover and his U.S. Food Administration, established in August 1917, encouraged food conservation and helped to stabilize the price of wheat.

Newspapers provided families with recipe ideas to help them compile their holiday menus. Women turned to newspapers for recipes and ideas about the type of Thanksgiving they should serve, and newspapers helped women implement these new policies to conserve food.

No Oysters or Turkey for the Thanksgiving Dinner?

What do you typically serve for the Thanksgiving dinner? While portions of the Thanksgiving dinner menu have changed over time, some of the key dishes have always been served. In this 1917 California newspaper article, readers are cautioned that they should refrain from serving oysters on the half shell, Neufchatel cheese, and turkey for Thanksgiving.

Simple [Thanksgiving] Menu; Just as Much Enjoyment, San Jose Mercury News 28 November 1917

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 28 November 1917, page 9

Readers are told: “The family can substitute chicken, pale American cheese, and other becomingly simple dishes, and not only secure the same number of food calories as in the more expensive repast, but have just as much to eat and just as good a time eating it.” The author provides some alternative menus but first adds that “…the Thanksgiving dinner can materially aid the food supply by not turning the usual feast into a gastronomic contest.”

(Note: the term “Hooverize” in this article’s subtitle—a word your ancestor would have known all too well—referred to economizing food. Since Hoover was the head of the Food Administration, his name became synonymous with this effort.)

Cutting Back on Sugar

Sugar was one of the food items that Americans were encouraged to limit. Today, in a world where much of the food we eat is prepared or pre-packaged, we don’t realize how much sugar is in a Thanksgiving meal. Cranberry sauce, gelatin salads, desserts and even sugar for coffee and tea were foodstuffs that families had to reconsider during wartime. It’s no wonder that newspaper articles like this one discouraged that old standby, cranberry sauce. As pointed out in this old news article, cranberry sauce required large amounts of sugar that seemed, during this precarious time, to be wasteful.

Cranberries Unpopular on Thanksgiving Menu, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 10 November 1917

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 10 November 1917, page 1

Use It Up, Do Without

American citizens were encouraged to plant gardens to supply produce for their meals. For those unable to plant gardens, patronizing local merchants who produced and sold food was encouraged. This was a predecessor of today’s popular “Buy Local, Eat Local” trend.

The main theme of many of the newspaper articles promoting these ideas seems to be: a true American would gladly go without. Consider this 1918 newspaper article’s closing sentence: “Turkey may be lacking in some cases, and the four kinds of pie which once closed the feast may be the only tradition of the ante bellum days, but reminiscences of much to be thankful for will dominate the Thanksgiving day of every true American.”

Thanksgiving Dinner of Home Grown Food Advocated by Hoover, Wyoming State Tribune newspaper article 23 November 1918

Wyoming State Tribune (Cheyenne, Wyoming), 23 November 1918, page 2

What did Thanksgiving dinner look like for your family during World War I? Do you have any stories about your grandparents’ Thanksgiving menu? Please share them in the comments below.

On Thanksgiving Day, Tom Turkey Is a Member of Everyone’s Family

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott begins his Thanksgiving celebration early by searching on “Tom Turkey” and looking through some of the more than 12,000 historical newspaper articles his search returned.

Happy Thanksgiving 2012! I will freely and readily admit that Thanksgiving is my all-time favorite holiday. I particularly love that it is noncommercial and focused on family, thanks, and food. What an awesome combination, especially for us genealogy and family history fans.

I was looking up a family member just the other day when thoughts of my upcoming Thanksgiving Day menu crept into my head. Since we have 20 family members coming from across the U.S. to share the holiday with us, I have been thinking a lot about Thanksgiving lately. Because I cook our turkeys outdoors on our barbeque grills, the name of “Tom Turkey” popped into my mind. Struck by this inspiration, I decided to do a search for this temporary family member in GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives. Wow: I was treated to over 12,000 hits, and in I dove!

The first article I opened offered advice that farmers should “Keep One Tom Turkey for Every Six Hens.” Now, even my love of Thanksgiving isn’t going to lead me to open a turkey farm in my backyard, so while I’ll keep that advice in mind, I also decided to keep on reading.

Keep One Tom Turkey for Every Six Hens, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 1 February 1922

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 1 February 1922, page 7

Next I came across something quite useful, an article entitled “Return Engagements for Mr. Tom Turkey.” Naturally it was a delicious-looking set of recipes and ideas for leftover turkey, and I copied them down and am going to try one of them out this year. That is, if there actually are any leftovers on Friday after our Thanksgiving feast!

Return Engagements for Mr. Tom Turkey, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 29 November 1953

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 29 November 1953, page 6

Then I discovered a very enjoyable old newspaper article entitled “Thanksgiving Advice.” It suggested that I should look for a “young Tom Turkey,” that I should skip the “5 cents a pound” premium price for a “Little Rhody turkey” from Rhode Island, and instead go for birds from Vermont or maybe Michigan. Plus the article told me that I need to look for “small red pumpkins” for the best pumpkin pie for our Thanksgiving dessert.

Thanksgiving Advice, Times-Picayune newspaper article 25 November 1906

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 25 November 1906, page 6

Soon my heart softened as I read a wonderful story entitled “Tom Powers and the Turkey.” I encourage you to read it—it’s a truly delightful story about the spirit of Thanksgiving. I still smile as I think back on it.

Tom Powers and the Turkey, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 22 November 1891

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 22 November 1891, page 14

I could have gone on and on, but I have some tough decisions to make about whether or not to add the gizzards into the turkey stuffing. Plus I have to decide where best to place the tape recorder so that I can capture our Thanksgiving blessings around the table for future generations.
Happy Thanksgiving 2012 to everyone and have a delightful day with Tom Turkey in your family!