A Thanksgiving to Remember

Americans have endured some tough years of late, which is nothing new in our history. One example is 1918, when people found plenty of reason to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Seventeen days before the holiday, the Armistice had been signed, ending World War I. But the nation was still in the throes of the influenza epidemic, which still lingered as Americans sat down to give thanks.

The flu epidemic had shut down many American cities throughout the fall, with death tolls in alarming numbers. An estimated 195,000 fatalities from the influenza and related causes were recorded in October alone, and subsequent surges – as with COVID today – would kill even more.

As the nation struggled with the health crisis, the Great War was winding down. Though hostilities had raged for four years in Europe, the U.S. had only declared war in April 1917.

Some 4.35 million Americans were mobilized, with 50,000 killed and 230,000 wounded. War news, and casualties, had filled the press for a year and a half, as had the constant somber updates of deaths from influenza.

With that backdrop, it is no wonder that Thanksgiving 1918 was marked with a range of emotions from coast to coast. In Maine, the Bangor Daily News reported in nearby Brewer that “Thanksgiving Day will be an unusually quiet holiday” but “every family has reason to be thankful more than ever before.”  The “only public social affair” on the calendar that day was “a dancing matinee in City Hall.” 

A few miles away in Old Town, patriotism ruled the day, as a “Victory Community Sing” was scheduled for 4 p.m. at City Hall for “giving thanks and expressing their joy at the great victory of the Allies.”  The mood was similar in Springfield, Ill., where a “great Thanksgiving mass meeting” heard the governor of Illinois declare that “autocracy is dead.”

Many soldiers were still overseas. The Capital Times of Madison, Wis. reported on the American headquarters in France, where “cantonments and fixed services were held” on Thanksgiving and “an effort was made to provide some substitute for the traditional dinner.”

Many French families opened their doors to American troops for Thanksgiving dinner. Back in the States, the homefront was still helping out. In southwestern Kansas, the Sublette Monitor carried an article calling for “a War Savings Stamp for every Thanksgiving dinner plate” in the state.

Some households mourned the loss of their soldier boys during the holiday. In the tiny central Illinois village of Tower Hill, Mrs. Anna Sphar received word the day after Thanksgiving of the death of her son, Chester, an American serviceman. He had only been in France a short while before his passing.  Thousands of other households were somber from the losses of beloved soldiers throughout the year.

Other loved ones were stricken with grief from the epidemic. Down the road in Shelbyville, there was also grief for the loss of Mrs. Mabel Edith Keller, 19, who succumbed to influenza the night before Thanksgiving. She left behind a husband and a six-week-old daughter.  In Decatur, Ill., Miss Ione Canine, 30, a sixth-grade teacher, died late on Thanksgiving night from pneumonia, caused by the influenza.

Some areas at Thanksgiving 1918 were still shut down from the epidemic. In Richmond, Ind., the local Palladium reported on “a pleasant Thanksgiving with nothing to do” on a “fair and warm day” since “health officers still keep the ban on all amusements or gatherings.”

In Bismarck, N.D., the papers wrote the day would be “one of quiet Thanksgiving even such as that in which our Pilgrim fathers consecrated themselves upon the first Thanksgiving Day at Plymouth Rock.”

Like today, there were notable shortages in 1918. In southeastern Missouri, the Iron County Register lamented that “very few turkeys [were] on the market for Thanksgiving.” The Morning News of Wilmington, Del. reported that turkey was “selling at 60 cents a pound” an exorbitant price for the time, “and being very scarce at that later in the day.” 

Some normal daily activities in Wilmington continued on the holiday, including the legal process. Two dozen prisoners appeared in the city’s court on Thanksgiving, where the Morning News chuckled they “had little to be thankful for” with “no leniency being shown despite the spirit of the day.”  The paper wryly concluded that the “usual run of drunks, petty thieves” and deadbeat dads received “the short shrift.”  

As usual, Americans were in a charitable mood. In Vermont, the Rutland Daily Herald reported that “eighty-five persons were supplied…with Thanksgiving dinner by the Salvation Army.”  A family of twelve was among the recipients, who were given “baskets filled with chicken or meat, potatoes, cranberries, onions, coffee, bread, butter, celery, beans, beets, turnips, cabbages, and pies.”

Many, though, were just happy for the return of peace. In Normal, Ill., scores of citizens attended a Thanksgiving service in the Illinois State University auditorium, where ministers of all denominations gathered to honor the day.  Millions of grateful Americans elsewhere also spent part of the day in church, a custom of the era.

They found plenty of reasons to be thankful. In adjacent Bloomington, the Pantagraph declared “never in the history of the world has there been greater rejoicing and for a more earnest expression of thanks than at this time, following four years of bloody warfare.”

That sentiment was shared nationwide. In Green Bay, the Wisconsin Public Service Company ran a display ad reading “isn’t it great to give thanks for PEACE on Thanksgiving Day.”  A headline in the Bulletin of Pomona, Calif. read that a “spirit of peace adds happiness to many Thanksgiving Day gatherings throughout the city.”

After the grueling year of 1918, it was, indeed, a time for celebration. Many papers shared the sentiments of an advertisement in the Rutland Daily Herald in Vermont in calling the holiday “the greatest of all Thanksgiving Days.”

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or [email protected].

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