This is a small essay that was written, or perhaps typed from notes, in 1953. The essay is available in three places worldwide: at the Newton Free Library, the Boston Athenæum, and at the library of the Massachusetts Historical Society. I encountered “An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving” when I was doing a project in the Newton Room at the Newton Free Library. Two years ago I searched to see if a copy of this charming memoir existed anywhere on the internet, it did not, which was a shame, so I went to the library and photographed the pages.
Below is a mildly edited, (only a comma and a word or two has been altered) version of the 1953 typed edition of this story from 1848. Unfortunately I don’t know who did the 1953 edition, but the 1848 was written in adulthood by Sallie D. Gilbert who was one of the “Little Ones” in the story.
An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving in 1848
Jackson Homestead, Newton, Massachusetts
By Sallie D. Gilbert
Dear Children, I wish you could look back with me into the dear old Kitchen Thanksgiving week, Grandmother and “The Girls” hadn’t a minute to spare then. “The Girls” were Aunt Ree, (Lucretia), Aunt Cutty, (Caroline), Aunt Peli, (Eileen) and Aunt Frank, (Frances).
Aunt Mouse was too young to be trusted with much, but she could pick raisins off the stem.
How gladly we all would have had a hand in the wonderful doings. As it was, we could only open the doors a little way and peep through the cracks, and then should run back to the rest of the children, “oh my! The pies are going into the oven,” and then every child would strain to look through the door, I think Grandmother would have let the whole horde of us rush in, for we’re never in Grandmother’s way; but this “getting ready” was mighty business to “The Girls,” and they could not have us under their feet. There was the meat to chop, and the apples to chop, the raisins to boil and then to chop; the citron to chop; and all to be mixed and seasoned. O, the good things that went into that seasoning:
Grandmother would taste.
“A little more salt,”
“Luck would taste,
“I think it ought to be sweeter.”
Peli would dip a spoon in, and taste, and Frank would taste, and each would suggest, but say,
“My! Isn’t it good!”
O, if we children could only taste, too, but our good time was coming. Grandmother would see to that. When every pie was filled, then we might draw a finger all around the inside of the great red earthen pan and then lap our fingers with a gusto; and how the boy would gloat over his luck if he could scrape a “bit lot” onto his finger; but this was after the pies were in the big brick oven. Then, and only then, could “The Girls” breathe content.
Aunt Cutty would put a pie on the shovel and push that by the long handle away to the back of the oven; then another pie and other till there was no more room. As I remember, the great oven was expected to back forty pies at a time. I know it seemed immense and mysterious.
The mince pies – forty in all – were made early in the week, the cranberry, whenever they could be. How beautiful they were, with no top crust, but the rich crimson color showing out between the diamonds and the scrolls that Duck made with delicate strips of crust. We children looked at those pies with wonder and admiration. Thorwaldson, with his moldings of clay, could not have commanded more adoration than we had for our Genius. By Wednesday night all the apple and squash pies must be done, for Thursday morning was hurrying time for the great dinner, which must be served by two.
That was a dreadfully late time for dinner but Mr. Gilbert must preach at West Newton and all his family take the sleigh after church. We little Gilbert girls were allowed to carry our dolls to meeting under our cloaks, and O! The trembling of joy of walking up the long aisle to the minister’s pew, and feeling if people only knew what we had under our coats! Of course, the dolls must go to Thanksgiving at Grandmother’s.
Then Uncle Lewis Hall was in the choir of his church, and he and his family must have a long time to drive way up from East Cambridge. The dinner must be late. All men folk went to church; but of course the women, i.e., those who were to have guests, could not go on any account.
The old pantry then was a good sight to see. Everything had been shoved aside to make room for pies and pies and pies. Every shelf – reachable – was covered with rows of them. We children would flock into the pantry, and gaze in admiration, and count them over and over – – so many mince (they were the royal pies), so many cranberry, so many apple, and so many golden squash.
Thanksgiving morning that dear old kitchen was a hall of plenty. Always through the winter a line across the room with hung with “crooked neck” squashes, and their golden color made them a gorgeous decoration, but on Thanksgiving morning everything was color. There were tables of pies in array already for serving, the pudding Grandmother was making at another table with no sparing of good things, “The Girls” were preparing the turkey and making ready the vegetables. Plenty everywhere. Plenteousness was necessary to call forth the true Thanksgiving spirit, which on this day was full of thankfulness for the abundance with which God had blessed our dear land.
Frank might be beating the butter and sugar together for pudding sauce to complete the glory of Grandmother’s masterpiece. It could not be beaten too much. Mouse could chop the heart and gizzards for giblet gravy, and I think Bill would even assist at that, though he was now too much a man to join us “children” in most things – – i.e. in our plays. He must have been quite seventeen on this Thanksgiving day of which I am especially reminded.
Cranberries had been stewed the day before, but there was bread to be cut, tables to set, pickles – Grandmother’s special stuffed mangoes- ouster sauce for the boiled turkey – so many things and so much to do. Every grown person was hurrying to and fro, and gradually order was evolved, and O, with what beautiful results. Of course, I was not an eye witness to all this, but keen reporters were on hand.
O, the ecstatic glow when our sleigh whirled into the yard. The horse himself knew it was a festive time and pranced gaily up to the door, sleigh bells tingling, and then what a greeting! All the household rushed to the door and shouted welcome. That we did for each new arrival. Uncle Tim and his family had long been on hand. They only had to come from over the way, but the Fullers were coming with Uncle Henry’s handsome horse. His horses were always fine creatures.
Aunt Sarah had been to Eliot church, so she made an early appearance at the Homestead, and the Halls earlier than you would have thought possible from so far away; but a sleigh-load of lively people might made any horse do his best. Soon all had arrived, and then what merry laughing and talking there was from that time on. I think the old walls must still be holding some of that merriment, for they still inspire “Good times.”
Then came the procession to the dining room and no royal progress ever commanded more rapturous attention than we children with open eyes gave the incoming troop.
Uncle Ed Triumphantly bore the huge turkey aloft. That was the roast one, Uncle Bill brought in the boiled one, another one came baring the steaming chicken pie. “The Girls,” one after another, carried potatoes, squash, turnips, cranberry sauce, giblet gravy and oyster sauce. Celery was already ornamenting the tables. Truly those tables groaned with abundance. It was easy to be thankful.
There was one long table in the old sitting room made festive enough, one would think, by the windows filled with blooming plants through which the sunbeams were playing, and there were, besides, two square tables, the one in the front corner for the “Young Folks” and the other by the secretary, surrounded by the “little things” whose mothers had made them as pretty as possible. Indeed, we granddaughters all had new gowns that gave us an undertone of proud happiness with all the gaiety.
“The Old Folks” i.e. Grandfather in the center, and Grandmother opposite with their children and their children’s consorts round about the board – were at the long table. On this particular Thanksgiving Day the newly engaged couples “Key” and Henry B. William, and Aunt Mary and Charles Curtis – were not expected to do any serving, but to be served with honor. How ancient they at the long table seemed to us “Young Folks,” yet they joked just as much as we did and every joke brought a merry shout. What was wanting in wit was made up in laughter, but, indeed, the wit was no mean affair. It could not be where Uncle Tim was; and Bill and others had often spicy speech. They were bright people about that table, and Grandfather looked proudly around on his family, forty-two of us were gathered in that room.
Ah! After the reverent grace, you should have seen our grandsire when he stood up to carve the mighty turkey. He sharpened his knife anew, and then went to work with a will. He was a masterly carver. He cut off the wings; he slashed off the drumsticks, and divided the joints; carved slices from the breast, and slit off the wishbone; parted the neck (that was always Uncle Tim’s choice), easily separated the side bones with their delicate dark meat; spooned out the stuffing; “broke the back” and then in no time delivered light or dark meat, drumsticks or wings on a plates ranged around, passing each in turn to Grandmother, saying “There, Mother,” and she heaped upon it all the vegetables and cranberry sauce, while married daughters lent their aid in helping to gravies.
Uncle Tim sat at one end of the table and helped from the huge chicken pie and some son-in-law carved the boiled turkey.
Everyone ate all he could, and then would say, “I must have a little of that boiled turkey. It looks too tempting to leave.”
“Well, I can’t go through Thanksgiving without tasting Mother’s chicken pie.”
“My! Mother but this beats any yet!”
There was much laughing when little Mary Gilbert passed her plate the third time for squash, and would eat nothing else. Her dinner was finished, older people were not so wise.
At length, all declared that they could really eat no more, for Grandmother’s smoking pudding had been brought in on a lordly dish, amid unbounded applause, and of course, everyone had taken a piece of that, and, so to speak, smacked his lips over it, and then “The Girls” brought in four kinds of pie and flanked the plum pudding with the tempting things; so that one said, “Well Mother, I’m full, but give me a sliver of that mince pie, and you might add a mouthful of that squash,” And others followed suit.
The little ones were soon through and playing in the entry. Aunt Frank, looking so pretty, had seen to their wants.
Next, the young folks left in haste to play “Old Bear” on the stairs, and at last the elders could do no more. Some adjourned for a run to help digestion; Grandfather and the older men, to tell stories around the parlor fire. “The Married Girls” cleared the table and washed the dishes, while “The Unmarried” ate their long-delayed dinner. It had been a hard working day for them. Grandmother rested.
Great was the shouting in the halls. Full liberty reigned on this day, and no child was hushed.
“Old Bear” was our special Thanksgiving game. The old bear would hide in the back upstairs entry, or in one of the four small chambers – all pitch dark; and we children, gathered in Grandmother’s room would creep down the stairs warily into the darkness of the back-hall. I remember well how I thrilled over the bravery of Steve and Will Gilbert as they heroically pressed forward to meet the enemy, while I, trembling, stood on one foot in the rear ready to run the moment we heard a growl and the bear sprang out and caught the first one he could, while the escaping ones fled to the light. The one who was caught became the bear in the next raid. I was always glad to be the bear, for it was better to be alone in the dark, than to be sprung on and startled. The “Rag Closet” (now the Box Closet) was a favorite hiding place for the bear. These were the days when the tin-peddler’s cart came around at regular times, and rags – sold by the pound – were exchanged for bright tin-ware. Then, the rags in the household were carefully saved, and assorted into white and colored. Just before the time for the coming of the peddler there would be a high pile of rags in the closet, and we would bury ourselves in those rags; and so, finely hidden from view, we could wait for our best chance to pounce on the victim.
One Thanksgiving Day, late in the afternoon, we were all summoned to the parlor. Grandfather and Grandmother occupied seats of honor, while others sat anywhere, or stood in the doorways.
I wondered when I saw my mother and Aunt Sarah sitting side by side, near the fireplace, for Mother was blushing, and Aunt Sarah was holding a written sheet of paper in her hand. Nearby, and no one was allowed to sit in it, stood Grandmother’s great grandfather’s chair. It was usually placed by the wall.
Aunt Sarah read aloud “The Old Armchair,” which you all know now, but it was a surprise to me. I looked at Mother with astonishment and pride, and said to myself,
“She is a poet! Wonderful!
Truly, I think Grandfather was as proud for shortly afterwards he had poem printed and gave it around to his friends and relatives.
The next year, the scene was almost repeated, for then Mother had written “the Daguerreotype,” and that was read.
I think this reading quieted us all, for soon we said goodby and drove away to our homes. Sighing to think we must wait a whole year before such a glorious day would come again.
Arriving at home we could eat so supper, for, truth to tell, we had hied to the storeroom from time to time just for ‘a taste” of those “splendid pies;” not that were hungry, but we could not neglect such a wonderful privileges as were allowed on this day of days. We might delve right into the midst of the finest pie there, and just think – – we need not eat the crust, if we did not want to; though why it could be a privilege not to eat that delicious flaky crust, none could tell.
I have neglected to say that Grandmother made a hundred pies, that she might have wherewith to give liberally to all – the poor and lonely – as a token of fellowship and love. The day before, the children were sent forth as almoners, in all directions, to carry the baskets heaped with good things.
One year, Grandfather loaded his sleigh with a full Thanksgiving dinner and drove to the Poor House. There he dined with the inmates and by merry jests and genial conversation brightened their day; then came back home to enjoy his home festival with his children.
That was before the days of the great immigration, and there were but seventeen inmates at the Poor House. They were of feeble mind or “Wanting” as the expression went, and victims of intemperance.
Since great benevolent societies are of recent birth, that benevolence was unpracticed and unknown to our forefathers – – or so the present generation is apt to think; but in those days every man knew his neighbor, and no one was allowed to suffer want.
In later years, Grandmother had a tree with presents on it for the grandchildren on Thanksgiving afternoon, and placed it between the nursery door and the fireplace.
Those of you who read this tale of Thanksgiving long ago – – whether you be “Old Folks,” “Young Folks” or “little things” – – please remember that the Old Homestead still stands to welcome you, as of old, through its front door. Its walls are still rich with memories of the laughter, the heroism, and the kindness that graced it for centuries.
Will you not visit us and see the great kitchen fireplace, and the old brick oven where Grandmother baked her mince pies – – forty at a time – – the dining room where forty-two sat at a sitting; the spacious halls where the children merrily played “Old Bear”, the parlor where the family poems were read; and the yard into which the horses pranced with their sleigh loads of Thanksgiving joy.
We will welcome you there!