Prologue Magazine

Thanksgiving: Another FDR Experiment

Fall 1990, Vol. 23, no. 3

By G. Wallace Chessman

© 1990 by G. Wallace Chessman

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Seated between Eleanor Roosevelt and a paralysis patient, President Franklin Roosevelt carves a turkey on Thanksgiving, November 23, 1939, at Warm Springs, Georgia. Despite the proclamation, over half the governors were setting different dates. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)

If Franklin Delano Roosevelt could see a 1990 calendar with Thanksgiving set for November 22, one can imagine how he might smile in recollection. For it was just fifty years ago last fall that he broke a last-Thursday-in-November tradition begun by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and faithfully followed since 1870 in every previous presidential proclamation of this day. By moving the date back one week in 1939, from the thirtieth to the twenty-third, FDR hoped to aid retail business by producing a longer Christmas shopping season. But whatever he accomplished there, the commotion caused elsewhere hardly made it seem worthwhile. One could almost detect his final sigh of relief on December 26, 1941, when he signed into law a congressional resolution fixing Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November.

In his first announcement of his intent, on August 14, 1939, at a press conference on Campobello Island, Roosevelt said "I have been hearing from a great many people for the last six years, complaints that Thanksgiving Day came too close to Christmas."1 And perhaps he best recalled the last time Thanksgiving fell on November 30, namely 1933, his first year in the White House. That September of 1933 the National Retail Dry Goods Association had publicly urged a presidential proclamation for November 23 instead of the thirtieth, but the real campaign had been waged behind the scenes, in a storm of letters and telegrams from business interests across the United States.

From Bullock's of Los Angeles via Senator William G. McAdoo and from a vice chairman of the Southern California State Recovery Board, for example, came letters in early September strongly recommending this change in order to extend the holiday season by a week.2 Before John G. Bullock resumed his lobbying effort in mid-October, moreover, the Oval Office had received similar notices from national associations of luggage dealers, retail clothiers and furnishers, merchants and manufacturers; from chambers of commerce of Schenec­tady, Jamaica (New York), Burlington (Iowa); from retail merchants associations of Utica, Minneapolis, Lynchburg, Baltimore, Indianap­olis, Boston; from major department stores of Albany, Evanston, Wichita, Omaha, Peoria; even from Sebastian S. Kresge of Detroit by way of former Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.3

A Poughkeepsie retail executive on September 25 thanked the President also for the "Buy Now Campaign" initiated under the new National Industrial Recovery Act. The next day a Utica merchant also advocated the earlier date in the "spirit of NRA," and soon the "Buy Now" theme was being sounded in support by one advocate after another. Clearly the national organizations were orchestrating an all-out antidepression effort that by October 13 attained full volume.4

But four days earlier, the White House had received a telegram from a worried president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, which had its annual meeting scheduled for November 23 with Secretary of Commerce Daniel C. Roper as the chief speaker: Was there any truth to the rumor about a change of date? On October 13 definite word went out by telegram to Columbus, Ohio, from FDR's assistant secretary, Stephen F. Early: "Thanksgiving Day will be observed this year as usual."5 That very day from The Richman Brothers Company of Cleveland ("America's Largest Clothing Mfgrs.") came a telegram coincidentally opposing any change—the only such advice received from any retail organization in the entire period.

Public announcement of the President's decision immediately followed, as in a "Special to The New York Times" release datelined "WASHINGTON, Oct. 13" stating that Roosevelt had "turned a deaf ear to pleas of retail merchants and other trade organizations." It had been explained at the White House that to advance the date a week "would cause considerable confusion, since in many States the Legislatures have fixed the date by statutes." Beyond that, it would also "disarrange football games which are scheduled for Thanksgiving and interfere with railroad excursions at that time."6

Such a brief notice, placed inconspicuously by the Times near the bottom of page seven, indicated how little the general public had been aware of this business campaign. But to a Trenton woman planning a late November entertainment and inquiring about the date, Presidential Secretary Louis M. Howe graciously replied on October 19 that "It has been the invariable custom for many years for the President to designate the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving."7 And though the chief of NRA's Blue Eagle Division reported receiving much mail as late as October 23, by then the flow at the White House had ceased.

Roosevelt never went beyond such suggested reasons for his 1933 decision, but it seems likely that the commotion a change would have caused weighed more heavily than the benefit it might have brought to businessmen already assisted by NRA's "Buy Now" campaign. In his Thanksgiving Proclamation itself, moreover, he managed not only to indict the "greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches" associated with the twenties but also to express gratitude for the economic and social progress already achieved under the New Deal.8

No, the year 1933 was just not appropriate for the change advocated by the nation's merchants.

Thanksgiving Day in 1934 was to fall upon a fifth Thursday once again—November 29—but no business promo­tion developed to alter the last-Thursday tradition. In the succeeding four years, moreover, as the appointed day steadily declined from the twenty-eighth to the twenty-fourth, the Christmas shopping season naturally lengthened to accommodate America's retailers. Not until the domestic economic outlook sharply worsened after 1936, and then the prospect loomed of a sudden loss in 1939 of six days of seasonal sales, were merchant forces again to mobilize.

A so-called Fish Advisory Committee did enliven the year 1935 by recommend­ing that Thanksgiving Day be changed to Tuesday to encourage fish consumption.9 At a White House press conference that October, a reporter said this committee had found that "people had so much turkey on Thursday that they had no appetite for fish on Friday"—would that affect the upcoming proclamation? "I will take the people who featured that on the next cruise," responded the seafaring incumbent of the Oval Office, "and they will catch so darned much fish that it will be all right."10

Roosevelt did spend the holiday at sea in November 1936, but typically the 1930s found him celebrating at the "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Georgia. Also typically, the few letters his office received about Thanksgiving in these years recommended a change from Thursday to a Monday or Friday in order to provide an extended weekend for workers and family reunions.11 One veteran in October 1937 did suggest merging with Armistice Day, while a Minneapolis woman who had founded the National Thanksgiving Association called for "display of the flag" in the celebration, but FDR's proclamations that year and the next spoke especially of acknowledging God's mercies in the nation's churches.12

First warning that the year 1939 would be unusual came in a February letter from a State University of Iowa professor pointing out the problem for academic events there: with five Thursdays in November, and calendars disagreeing on the date of Thanksgiving, what did the President intend to do? "While the date . . . has not yet been fixed," replied Assistant Secretary M. H. McIntyre almost immediately, "it has long been customary to name the last Thursday in November."13

Another warning came that April, in the form of an Indiana businessman's recommendation to the World Calendar Association, that the date be advanced to a Monday in November's second or third week. A U.S. navy captain's reply for the association, transmitted to the White House in a "Memorandum for the President," stated that those Mondays would be too close to Armistice Day and that it would be better to select the last Monday of November. From FDR appar­ently came a quick note to a staff member: "Put in my calendar book and bring to my attention the first day of October."14

At last on June 22, Stephen F. Early (now FDR's secretary) received from an Evanston man the first direct suggestion of a change to November 23 from the thirtieth marked on "most calendars." The only surprising thing was the reason he gave for such a move: "Merchants and manufacturers would stand to gain considerable working hours for their employees if the President declares Thanksgiving as November 23." In reply Early did not seek further explanation but just acknowledged receipt without comment.15

From late June to mid-August 1939 the Roosevelt administration moved quietly toward a Thanksgiving decision. As in 1933, the principal impetus was economic, the appeal of a longer Christmas shopping season to retailers still suffering from a severe recession in 1937–1938. The main deterrents remained the same also, but a seasoned leader who had already assaulted tradition directly with his plan to rejuvenate the Supreme Court might feel less restrained when financial profit could promote political gain. Republicans and conservative Democrats had set back FDR's forces in the 1938 elections; it was not too soon to be thinking about 1940.

The first major proposal to change the date came this time from a high administrative official in Washington, Lowell Mellett, executive director of the National Emergency Council. In a memorandum to the President on June 26, he indicated that with only twenty shopping days and three Sunday newspaper-ad days between November 30 and December 25, retailers and publishers "are anticipating one of the worst shopping periods in many years." Mellett understood that the last Thursday had long been the custom, but it had been suggested to him by the Ohio Retail Council's executive director and the director of the Ohio State Publishers Association "that you might be tempted to break the present precedent and fix the fourth Thursday . . . for this year." This memo in the Roosevelt Papers at Hyde Park carries the notation "To Take up at Cabinet."16

Soon the White House staff was busy seeking opinions about changing the date not to the fourth Thursday but to "the Monday nearest the fifteenth of November."17 Attorney General Frank Murphy replied that the President could do so; such proclamations were recommendations, without legal force, though the District of Columbia and a number of states did observe them as law.18 Murphy believed, however, that it would be best to be assured in advance of the concurrence of governors, "inasmuch as many statutes vest concurrent or alternative authority in the Governor of the State." Almost in passing, he noted also that Washington (1789) and Lincoln (1864) had designated the last Thursday of November.19

The executive secretary of the Wash­ington Federation of Churches was another authority consulted. Having checked with cleric friends, the Reverend Dr. W. L. Darby responded that Protestant churches would be hostile to Monday and to moving up one Thursday. In forwarding this information to the President, Stephen Early simply added that "The Protestants will raise 'Hell' if you change their Thanksgiving Day celebration from Thursday to Monday."20

In this decision-making process, Roosevelt's mind was clearly on spiritual as well as material matters. In fact, when James T. Shotwell of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote to say that Thanksgiving was a time not just for giving thanks but for "dedication to the unfinished tasks that lie ahead," Roosevelt's reply revealed his own concern. He thanked Shotwell personally but then added that it "would be a consummation devoutly to be wished if we could recapture the spirit [ of Thanksgiving] through which the emphasis would be placed on spiritual rather than material things."21

Material things nonetheless kept in­truding. Roosevelt's close adviser Harry Hopkins, then serving as secretary of commerce, received a message dated August 4 from Lew Hahn, general manager of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, strongly advising that the late date be changed. As reported in the business section of the New York Times, Hahn estimated that "from 12 to 15 per cent of the entire annual retail trade is transacted between Thanksgiving and Christmas"; to have this period reduced to virtually three weeks "will work a tremendous hardship upon the great body of store employees as well as those in manufacturing enterprises." Though he lacked "sufficient temerity to seek to influence the President," Hahn concluded, "it seemed to me that I should point out the situation as it is, and to say that if any relief could be secured it would be not only good for business, but for the public as well."22

Material things obviously were on Lowell Mellett's mind also in his memo to the President on August 7 suggesting an informal press conference as the best setting for an announcement of the change of date. Beyond that he even recommended arguments that could be used to bolster the case—that prior to seventy years before, the day proclaimed had varied; that governors themselves had set different times; and that since Thanksgiving was originally a harvest festival, an earlier celebration was more fitting.23

On vacation on Campobello Island a week later, Roosevelt did use an informal press conference to reveal his decision. "I thought you would have a swell story right in the back of your head to give us up here," remarked one reporter. "Oh!" came the reply, "I will give you a story I had entirely forgotten."

Then the President proceeded to explain that he had been hearing "from a great many people for the last six years, complaints that Thanksgiving Day came too close to Christmas"; that "stores and people who work, retail people, etc., are very anxious to have it set forward"; that he had "checked up and it seems to be the only holiday that is not provided by law, nationally, even though it may be in a small number of states"; and that this year, "because Thanksgiving Day is the thirtieth of November (I had better check on that), I am going to step it up a whole week and make it not the last Thursday but the Thursday before the last Thursday in November."

"This year, Mr. President?" came a question; "This year, yes," the reply. "And on the history of it," FDR proceeded to explain in this Press Conference #572 labeled "Confidential" in his library's printed record, "it has been held at various times. In the early days of the Republic it was held sometime in October, being a perfectly movable feast, and it was not set as the last Thursday in November until after the Civil War, so there is nothing sacred about it, and as there seems to be so much desire to have it come a little earlier, I am going to step it up one week."24

A nation generally oblivious to presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving woke up Tuesday morning the fifteenth of August to read front-page stories from the Associated Press that Roosevelt "was shattering another precedent and up the date of Thanksgiving this year from Nov. 30 to Nov. 23." The next day's headline to the first-page story in the New York Times well summarized reactions: "Shift in Thanksgiving Date Arouses the Whole Country; Many Governors Op­pose Idea and Some Will Set Old Date—Merchants Hail Roosevelt Plan, but Football Coaches Decry It." For the next two weeks hardly a day passed without some press notice of the commotion caused somewhere across America. Any lingering hope that criticisms might change Roosevelt's mind died hard.

Retailers of course reacted favorably. The head of the American Retail Federations said records showed "that more business is done in years when Thanks­giving falls far enough ahead of Christmas to permit four full shopping weeks." Frederic Gimbel of Gimbel Brothers welcomed "a more normal shopping season," and Lord and Taylor's Walter Hoving predicted "as much as $1,000,000,000 additional business might be generated in manufacturing and distribution lines." Executives of the National Retail Dry Goods Association hailed the result also, as General Manager Lew Hahn recalled his earlier appeal to Harry Hopkins and forecast "a reassuring effect on manufacturers and distributors, and their employees in almost every consumer's goods line.25

Among the governors first interviewed, however, the response was mixed. Maine's Barrows and Vermont's Aiken indicated that they'd observe "the same day as usual," and Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts especially cited school and college vacation schedules to contend a change would be "more upsetting than advantageous." Republican governors of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Idaho were also opposed, but so were Demo­crats like North Carolina's Clyde R. Hoey and Arizona's R. T. Jones.26 Indeed, in their later proclamations, only seventeen out of twenty-eight Democratic governors would support the President, while twelve out of seventeen GOP state leaders would oppose him and the governors of Mississippi (D), Texas (D), and Colorado (R) would agree to observance of both dates.27

At colleges and universities, most academic officials reportedly favored a longer period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but football coaches were shocked: some of their biggest games were scheduled for November 30. Could the classic Fordham-NYU battle be rescheduled? If its traditional Turkey Day contest with Penn had to be moved to November 23, said Cornell's athletic director, "it would give us only five days' rest after the Michigan game"—a prospect only avoided eventually by shifting the date to Saturday, November 25. To save a scheduled contest with Oklahoma, Arkansas's athletic business manager thought "Maybe we can get the Governors of Oklahoma and Arkansas to proclaim Nov. 30 Thanksgiving Day"—which fortunately they later did. In fact, gubernatorial actions undoubtedly relieved football officials and fans in North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arizona, whereas Rutgers University itself observed two Thanksgivings so that its students could attend their game with Brown up in Rhode Island on the thirtieth.28

Penn-Cornell might break their forty­five-year football tradition, but the selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts, were not about to desert theirs. "We are strongly opposed to any change that may be made from the regular Thanksgiving Day custom and feel we would be sacrificing the real significance of the day for the purpose of satisfying commercial interests," they wired the President on August 15; "An event that has occupied a place in American history since the administration of Abraham Lincoln is, in our judgment, too important to be so lightly regarded." And though they did not bring up the Pilgrim Fathers, their chairman did assert that "It is a religious holiday and the President has no right to change it for commercial interests."29

The coupling of tradition with religious and patriotic sentiments on the one hand and the condemnation of commercialism on the other became recurrent themes sounded by critics publicly and in messages directly to the White House. New Englanders were most outspoken, and their views unduly influenced an early Gallup poll showing 62 percent of Americans against the change, yet that survey did reveal partisanship as 75 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of "others" opposed, while 52 percent of Democrats favored the President's plan.30

Complaints that there should have been earlier notice of the shift were espe­cially common, as indeed the administra­tion back in 1933 had recognized would be the case. Schedules of all sorts, not just academic and football, were often affected adversely. The alarm expressed publicly on August 23 by New Jersey's Hotel Association about Atlantic City's holiday conventions, for example, was echoed by the Hotel Association of New York City.31 Vehement protests came to Washington from one calendar company after another, some complaining that several million calendars for the year 1940 had already been manufactured.32

Franklin Roosevelt was not about to change his mind about 1939. But "in response to numerous inquiries from calendar makers and art concerns who require advance notice in order properly to designate the feast on the 1940 calendars," his secretary told reporters on August 30, the President was prepared to designate the date for the next year. This advance notice would also "make it possible for makers of football schedules to plan ahead for the holiday games," and thus respond to so many protests from coaches and governors this year. The date for 1940, said Early, would be November 21, the third Thursday. Despite the criticism, the Roosevelt experiment would continue.33

Questioned immediately about their reaction, eleven governors endorsed change in both years, sixteen opposed any change, and the rest were somewhere in between. Eventually this advance notice, together possibly with a felt need to display greater unity, brought six more state executives over to the President's side in 1940; only the Republican governor of Pennsylvania in March 1940 would heed "an overwhelming consensus" to return to "the traditional date."34

Though the country would continue to be divided over the two Thanksgiving Days in 1939 and 1940, at least America remained at peace. With Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the European war took over the headlines day after day, downplaying a domestic dispute about a November holiday over two months away. At the White House, as the volume of incoming protests also declined, the opportunity to respond to polite inquiries and helpful suggestions increased. By the end of 1940 there would even be time to evaluate results.

FDR's daring continued to inspire zealous advocates of a Monday or Friday date for Thanksgiving (or even an Armistice Day merger) to press their case. But the President's secretary, Early, knowing that the Monday possibility had been explored once, paid little attention to such suggestions. Instead he took care to in­form a Chicago calendar maker or the New York City superintendent of schools or the California Turkey Growers Association of the dates set for 1940 as well as 1939.35 Where the correspondent was happy to be celebrating a birthday or anniversary on November 23, 1939, the President's personal secretary, Missy LeHand, would customarily extend his "congratulations and best wishes."36

The proclamation he signed at Washington on October 31 ignored the contro­versy and touched upon all the right themes in an appropriate way. The Pilgrims were there and President Washington, but not Lincoln's action in 1863 and 1864. It was "fitting that we should con­tinue this hallowed custom and select a day in 1939 to be dedicated to reverent thoughts of thanksgiving." The nation had made "heartening" progress to alleviate "the specters of business depression, of unemployment, and of widespread agricultural distress." The people had also seen "the fruition of measures we have taken in the realms of health, social welfare and the conservation of resources." America was at peace and had strengthened bonds of friendship in the Western Hemisphere.37

But careful crafting could not conceal the fact that over half the governors were setting a different date.38 Nor could a news photo of the President carving a turkey for ninety paralysis patients down in Georgia on November 23 obscure the fact that forty-six governors sent food typical of their states for a great feast on the thirtieth at a "Plymouth Aglow for Thankgiving."39 In a widely praised editorial, the New York Times declared that "Two Thanksgiving Days are not too many," but from his pulpit the popular Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale called it "questionable thinking and contrary to the meaning of Thanksgiving for the President of this great nation to tinker with a sacred religious day on the specious excuse it will help Christmas sales."40

Whether sales were indeed being helped soon became another disputed point. Merchants of New York City reported on Tuesday the twenty-eighth that advancing the date had not spurred early Christmas buying there, but on the next day at a press conference, Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins cited Labor Department statistics on steadily increasing employment since May to predict that with a longer shopping season, the best Yule trade in a decade would result.41 In like fashion, a Civic and Business Federation of White Plains, New York, declared in mid-December that the change had just "created much unnecessary confusion," yet a National Retail Dry Goods Association study later found that localities proclaiming the earlier date had enjoyed better business compared to the year before or to places sticking to the old Thanksgiving.42

Whatever the true results, of course, the administration was already committed to the earlier date of November 21 for 1940. In that election year the only governor to shift away from Roosevelt's position was James of Pennsylvania, a Republican, whereas those of nine states (three Republican, six Democratic) switched completely to the President's side, leaving just sixteen states adhering to the fourth/last Thursday.43 GOP candidate Wendell Willkie said he favored "the old-fashioned date," but after FDR won, even Connecticut's Governor Baldwin (R) declared November 21 a "banking holiday" to avoid "misunderstanding and confusion" in financial circles.44

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Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia's report concluded that the longer holiday shopping days did not increase retail sales. He pledged New York City support to Roosevelt for "whatever date you decide on for next Fall."

As Roosevelt looked ahead to an unprecedented third term, he indicated to his secretary, Early, that "as long as the President is in the White House Thanksgiving will be kept a week in advance."45 But in late November New York's Democratic mayor, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, had told his city commissioner of commerce to launch an investigation that eventually would affect FDR's outlook. "I wish you would arrange to get accurate figures to indicate whether or not the claims anticipated by retailers have been fulfilled," quoted the Times from LaGuardia's letter. "I have been somewhat surprised at the silence of some of these retailers, while the President is taking all the heat of the criticism because of the change of date," concluded the mayor. "So let's get the facts."46

In the meantime, appeals began to come to the White House from such bodies as New York City's Hotel Association, its Central Mercantile Association, and the Chamber of Commerce of Austin, Texas, all requesting return to the fourth or last Thursday of November.47 From the Pennsylvania Retailers' Association in January came an equally instructive plea for a uniform date, based upon a poll of its membership showing that 51 percent favored the third Thursday, 37 percent the fourth, 12 percent had no preference. In thanking this business group, Stephen Early did not mention that he had just informed a printer of calendars in Salem, Illinois, that the President intended to designate the third Thursday, November 20, as Thanksgiving Day for 1941.48

Evidence favorable to the old date nonetheless continued to accumulate. The Commerce Department knew that the major promoter of the 1939 change, the National Retail Dry Goods Association, had reversed itself at an unpublicized January convention.49 Though the White House learned in March from the Retail Research Association of Ohio that there the "price trend ratio" seemed to support the earlier date, news reports of New York City's investigation indicated otherwise.50 In fact, the New York legislature had even passed a bill setting the 1941 date for the "last Thursday," only to have Governor Lehman veto it, whereupon a separate state assembly/senate resolution to the same effect was independently dispatched to the White House.51

LaGuardia's full report to Roosevelt on May 6 filled out this picture. A questionnaire on weekly sales for November–December 1936, 1938, 1939, and 1940 had elicited replies from 203 out of 2,000 stores in the five boroughs; these indicated no greater aggregate sales with the new date, while 76 companies favored the earlier Thanksgiving, 94 opposed it, and 33 expressed no opinion. A further survey also reported by LaGuardia of twenty-two cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, asking whether the advance of date had increased their Christmas trade, had elicited just one "no," but thirteen had not answered. Ten cities desired to see the new date continued, he added, but four preferred the old one, and eight expressed no preference.

From all this evidence LaGuardia felt compelled to conclude "that the early Thanksgiving date has not yet proved worthwhile." "Personally," he would "be glad to see it tried again," yet he was "obliged to say that there is a great deal of feeling against the change, much of it sentimental." In any case, New York City would "as always, be glad to stand behind you in whatever date you decide on for next Fall."52

By the morning of May 20, 1941, Roosevelt was ready to announce at Press Conference #742 that the experiment to help retailers by advancing the Thanksgiving date "did not work. (laughter)."

From the data collected by the Com­merce Department and the Conference of Mayors, the President had "an enormous file which shows in general that the large majority of the retail stores now reluctantly—most of them say that it hasn't made much difference one way or the other in their sales, and the Conference of Mayors are about divided across the middle as to whether it has made a difference or not."

It was too late to change for 1941, he then added, "in view of the fact that we have made rather definite commitments to our calendar makers and the retail stores themselves, as to the date this year." But though Thanksgiving thus would once again come a week early, on November 20, 1941, "next year it will return to the last Thursday of November, as heretofore."

"Voice: (not loudly) Hurray!"53

Senator Taft of Ohio and the rest of Congress approved the resolution making the fourth Thursday a legal holiday.

The city and state of New York would follow the President's lead that fall, as would two-thirds of the nation, and by 1942 a country unified in war would be united also in the celebration of one Thanksgiving Day on November 26, the fourth and last Thursday of that month. Though the governors of some states would continue as late as 1951 to cling to the old last Thursday tradition, the bitterness of the division of 1939 would recede as the country coalesced around a fourth Thursday compromise.

The press announcements in May 1941 of Roosevelt's intent for that year and the next signaled the end to his particular experiment, yet on October 6 the House passed and sent to the Senate a measure (H.J. Res. 41) to make the last Thursday in each year after 1941 a legal holiday to be known as Thanksgiving Day. What the House was recognizing was not only the confusion caused by Roosevelt's changes, reasoned its judiciary committee, but also that "there is no law fixing the date other than the President's Proclamation."54 By stipulating the "last Thursday," however, this new resolution raised that same problem that Roosevelt had faced in 1939. So the one amendment proposed by the Senate's judiciary committee, in its report of November 24, 1941, was to strike out "last" and insert "fourth" before the name "Thursday."55

Fittingly, in a spirit of unity, on the second day after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Senate proceeded to agree to this amendment. When Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft quickly questioned whether the change from "last" to "fourth" had any historical basis, or "whether we are now compromising between the Executive and history," Connecticut's John A. Danaher of the judiciary committee responded that the fourth Thursday was "the historical date," that five out of seven years it was also the last Thursday, and that "we make it the fourth rather than the last Thursday simply to have a fixed date so that everyone will know from now on what day is to be Thanksgiving Day."56 Whereupon the Senate, and ten days later the House, approved the amended resolution, which the President signed into law on December 26, 1941.57

States such as New York and New Jersey the next year also enacted measures fixing the fourth Thursday in November as the observance day.58 When the fourth Thursday was to fall on November 23 in 1944, moreover, even the New England governors adopted that date for that year.59 In 1950 there were still five states that held out for the thirtieth over the twenty-third—Arkansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Tennessee—while Texas once more observed two Thanksgiving Days.60 Only in 1951, in the depth of the Korean conflict, with November 22 falling on the fourth Thursday, did the nation finally reaffirm a new unity around this traditional celebration.

And as we turned to our national holiday on November 22 this year, maybe we should have acknowledged that Bob Taft did have a point: we are, in a real sense, compromising between history and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But through this compromise has come consensus.

G. Wallace Chessman is Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at Denison University and is university historian. He was a Fulbright senior lecturer an is the author of Governor Theodore Roosevelt: The Albany Apprenticeship and Theodore Roosevelt and the Politics of Power.


The author would like to express appreciation to Supervisory Archivist Raymond Teichman and his staff at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York, for their cooperation in research there.

1. Presidential Press Conference #572, Aug. 14, 1939, vol. 14, p. 18, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY.

2. John G. Bullock to William McAdoo and to Charles M. Brown, Sept. 5, 1933, both forwarded to Louis M. Howe, FDR's secretary, in Official File 54-1933. These and other letters and memorandums in the several volumes of Official File 54 all refer to the general subject of "Thanksgiving"; any succeeding correspondence cited from FDR Library files will be designated "OF 54, FDR 3 Library."

3. Kresge’s letter to Palmer (Oct. 12, 1933) came late in this barrage between Sept. 19 and Oct. 13, 1933. OF 54, FDR Library.

4. Edward F. Cary, V. P., Luckey, Platt & Co., Poughkeepsie, NY, Sept. 25, 1933; Robert D. Fraser of Fraser's, Utica, NY, Sept. 26, 1933; "Buy Now" letters from Worcester, MA (Oct. 9), Syracuse, NY (Oct. 5), Reading, PA (Oct. 7), as well as Utica, NY (Oct. 2), 5 all in OF 54, FDR Library.

5. Telegrams from/to Frank B. McMillen, Huntington Bank Bldg., Columbus, OH, OF 54, FDR Library.

6. New York Times, Oct. 14, 1933, p. 7, col. 5.

7. Louis M. Howe to Mrs. S. W. Osborne, Oct. 19, 1933, OF 54, FDR Library.

8. For the text of FDR's proclamation, see H.S.J. Sickel, Thanksgiving (1940), p. 250.

9. New York Times, May 25, 1935, p. 17, col. 6.

10. Presidential Press Conference #243, Oct. 25, 1935, Executive Offices White House, FDR Library.

11. For the designation of Monday, see Georgia L. Goddard of Cleveland (Nov. 6, 1936) or C. A. Fewell of Bellflower, MO (Oct. 6, 1938); for Friday, see Robert Grimshaw of Ridgefield, NJ (Oct. 1, 1937) or Edith B. Gedney of Wilton, CT (Oct. 18, 1937), all in OF 54, FDR Library.

12. George R. Vaughan, Brownswood, TX (Oct. 28, 1937); Mrs. Bernard Druck, St. Paul, MN (Oct. 27, 1937), OF 54, FDR Library. Sickel, Thanksgiving, pp. 254, 255.

13. Roy C. Flickinger to Secretary to the President, Feb. 2, 1939; McIntyre to Flickinger, Feb. 6, 1939, OF 54, FDR Library.

14. Memorandum for the President from Captain D. J. Callaghan, Apr. 26, 1939, with enclosed correspondence of C. M. Leary of Gary, IN, and Captain J. F. Hellweg (of the Naval Observatory) for the World Calendar Association; [FDR] memo to Mr. Forster, Apr. 27, 1939.

15. John H. Byers, Evanston, IL, to Early, June 20, 1939; Early to Byers, June 22, 1939, OF 54, FDR Library.

16. To the President from Lowell Mellett, June 26, 1939, OF 54, FDR Library.

17. Memo to Attorney General from William D. Hessett, Asst. to Early, June 29, 1939, OF 54, FDR Library.

18. Federal territories also observed the President’s proclamation.

19. Frank Murphy to FDR, enclosure in Early to FDR, July 17, 1939, OF 54, FDR Library. Actually Washington had just said "Thursday the 26th day of November next," which was the fourth as well as the last Thursday, whereas Lincoln both in 1863 and 1864 had specified "the last Thursday of November next"—which also happened to be the fourth Thursday. See Sickel, Thanksgiving, pp. 153, 164, 166.

20. Early to FDR, July 19, 1939, OF 54, FDR Library.

21. Shotwell to FDR, July 28, 1939; FDR to Shotwell, Aug. 1, 1939, OF 54, FDR Library.

22. Hahn to Hopkins, Aug. 4, 1939, cited in New York Times, Aug. 5, 1939, p. 25, col. 3.

23. Memo from Mellett to FDR, Aug. 7, 1939, OF 54, FDR Library.

24.Presidential Press Conference #572, Aug. 14, 1939, vol. 14, pp. 118–119, FDR Library.

25. New York Times, Aug. 16, 1939, p. 12, col. 1.

26. lbid., p. 12, cols. 2–5; Aug. 17, 1939, p. 19, col. 1.

27. lbid., Nov. 23, 1939, p. 34, col. 1; Nov. 30, 1939, p. 1, col. 3.

28. lbid., Aug. 16, 1939, p. 12, col. 4 (academic officials) and p. 12, cols. 6–7 (college coaches); Aug. 29, p. 27, col. 4 (Penn­Cornell); Sept. 23, p. 36, col. 4 (Dartmouth-Stanford in New York City on Dec. 2); Oct. 5, p. 25, col. 2 (Rutgers-Brown). See also letter of Aug. 19, 1939, from the NYU Board of Athletic Control re the Fordham game scheduled for Thanksgiving Day in Yankee Stadium. Penn and Cornell shifted their forty-sixth Turkey Day game to Saturday, Nov. 25, 1939.

29. Ibid., Aug. 16, 1939, p. 12, col. 3.

30. Ibid., Aug. 25, 1939, p. 10, col. 7.

31. lbid., Aug. 24, 1939, p. 13, col. 3; Sept. 8, 1939, p. 11, col. 6.

32. Incoming letters relating to Thanksgiving became so numerous after FDR's August 14 announcement that Official File #54 began to be organized alphabetically by name of sender. For calendar complaints, see, for example, Apt. Lithographic Co. (Aug. 15, 21, 31), Advertising Specialty National Association (Aug. 17), Budget Press of Salem, OH (Aug. 15), and Geiger Bros. of Newark, NJ (Aug. 15).

33. New York Times, Aug. 31, 1939, p. 21, col. 8.

34. Ibid.; and Mar. 14, 1939, p. 25, col. 7.

35. Early to a celluloid-calendar-card maker of Chicago, Oct. 2, 1939; to NYC Supt. of Schools, Oct. 9, 1939; to California Turkey Growers Association, San Francisco, Oct. 5, 1939, all in OF 54, FDR Library.

36. See M. A. LeHand to Mrs. Anne Hone, Bronx, NY (Nov. 14), to a twenty-three-year-old woman of Carbondale, PA (Nov. 13), and to nine-year-old girls from Indiana and Pennsylvania (Nov. 15, 371939), OF 54, FDR Library.

37. Sickel, Thanksgiving, p. 256; text also in New York Times, Nov. 1, 1939, p. 25, col. 4.

38. The New York Times of Oct. 17 (p. 19, cols. 3-4) and Nov. 23, 1939 (p. 34, col. 1), showed how the states lined up, with the affiliations of their governors:


Nov. 23

(D) California

(R) Colorado*

(D) Delaware

(D) Georgia

(D) Illinois

(D) Indiana

(D) Louisiana

(D) Maryland

(R) Michigan

(D) Mississippi*

(D) Missouri

(D) Montana

(D) New Jersey

(D) New York

(D) North Dakota

(R) Ohio

(R) Oregon

(R) Pennsylvania

(D) South Carolina

(D) Texas*

(D) Utah

(D) Virginia

(D) Washington

(D) West Virginia

(R) Wyoming


Nov. 30

(D) Alabama

(D) Arizona

(D) Arkansas

(R) Colorado*

(R) Connecticut

(D) Florida

(R) Idaho

(R) Iowa

(R) Kansas

(D) Kentucky

(R) Maine

(R) Massachusetts

(R) Minnesota

(D) Mississippi*

(D) Nebraska

(D) Nevada

(R) New Hampshire

(D) New Mexico

(D) North Carolina

(D) Oklahoma

(R) Rhode Island

(R) South Dakota

(D) Tennessee

(D) Texas*

(R) Vermont

(R) Wisconsin


* Observed both days.

39. New York Times, Nov. 24, 1939, p. 18, cols. 2–5; Nov. 30, 1939,

40. lbid., Nov. 23, 1939, p. 26, col. 1; letters on editorial, Nov. 28, 1939, p. 24, col. 7, and Dec. 1, 1939, p. 22, col. 7; Peale quoted, Nov. 24, 1939, p. 19, col. 2.

41. Ibid., Nov. 29, 1939, p. 39, col. 5; Nov. 30, 1939, p. 31, col. 5.

42. lbid., Dec. 14, 1939, p. 20, col. 3; Jan. 13, 1940, p. 25, col. 4.

43. lbid., Mar. 14, 1940, p. 25, col. 7; Nov. 20, 1940, p. 23, col. 1; Nov. 21, 1940, p. 1, col. 2.

44. Ibid., Sept. 21, 1940, p. 10, col. 2; Nov. 17, 1940, p. 22, col. 2.

45. Memo for Hassett, Nov. 30, 1939, OF 54: 1940, FDR Library.

46. New York Times, Nov. 24, 1940, p. 42, cols. 2–3.

47. To White House from Congressman Matthew J. Merritt, Dec. 17, 1940; from Board of Directors, Central Mercantile Association of the City of New York, Dec. 19, 1940; from Chamber of Commerce, Austin, TX, Dec. 19, 1940, all in OF 54, FDR Library.

48. Pennsylvania Retailers' Association of Lancaster, PA, to the White House, Jan. 20, 1941; Early to the Association, Jan. 23, 1941; to the Budget Press of Salem, OH, Jan. 18, 1941, all in OF 54, FDR Library.

49. Grosvenor Jones to Wayne C. Taylor, Mar. 19, 1941, from the File of the Department of Commerce, clipped to White House Press Release of May 20, 1941, OF 54, FDR Library.

50. State Director for Ohio, Office of Government Reports, to Lowell Mellett, Exec. Dir., Office of Govt. Repts., Washington, DC, Mar. 6, 1941, OF 54, FDR Library.

51. New York Times, Mar. 14, 1941, p. 23, col. 2 (Lehman veto); McIntyre to Clerk of the New York State Assembly, Mar. 27, 1941 (acknowledging receipt of Resolution of New York State Assembly/Senate), OF 54, FDR Library.

52. Fiorello H. LaGuardia to FDR, May 6, 1941, OF 54, FDR Li­brary.

53. Press Conference #742, May 20, 1941, vol. 17, pp. 333–334, Executive Offices of the President, FDR Library; New York Times, May 21, 1941, p. 25, col. 5.

54. Oct. 6, 1941, Congressional Record, 77th Cong., 1st sess., 87: 7653; New York Times, Oct. 7, 1941, p. 25, col. 7.

55. Dec. 9, 1941, Cong. Rec., 77th Cong., 1st sess., 87: 9551.

56. Ibid.

57. New York Times, Dec. 20, 1941, p. 21, col. 7; Dec. 27, 1941, p. 14, col. 8.

58. lbid., Mar. 24, 1942, p. 11, col. 6; May 8, 1942, p. 23, col. 6.

59. Ibid., Dec. 17, 1943, p. 17, col. 2.

60. Ibid., Nov. 19, 1950, sect. IV, p. 13, col. 5.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.