Sarah Josepha Hale, the founder of the feast
The United States might seem like a tense place this Thanksgiving season, but in 1863, things were worse. For much of this country’s history, people only celebrated Thanksgiving sporadically, and just in parts of New England, not in the entire United States.
In the 1800s, one woman set out to change that. Sarah Josepha Hale was the New Hampshire-born editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, then one of the most widely circulated magazines in the world.
Hale thought Thanksgiving needed to be celebrated on the same day throughout the United States. “Then, indeed, the festival will be national, and joy and thankfulness pervade the whole land,” she wrote in a Godey’s editorial in 1848 advocating for the holiday. She wrote about the issue to government officials, to U.S. presidents and for Godey’s readers for 15 years.
Not much happened, until she wrote to Abraham Lincoln.
In a letter dated Sept. 23,1863, Hale urged Lincoln to make Thanksgiving “a National and fixed Union Festival” on the fourth Thursday of November.
Perhaps Lincoln admired Hale’s chutzpah. Or perhaps he thought it would boost Union morale in the middle of the Civil War. Within days, he issued a proclamation that ran in The Baltimore Sun, among other newspapers.
And so Thanksgiving became an annual holiday throughout the U.S. (In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it to the third, rather than the fourth Thursday in November, to help boost holiday sales.)