Celebrating an MHC Thanksgiving--in the 1800s

Uploaded by mountholyokenews on 22.11.2010

The story of a 19th century Mount Holyoke Thanksgiving is an intricately beautiful one…as
expressed in student letters and diaries from the mid-1800s. The finely handwritten documents
are part of the College’s Archives and Special Collections.
Patricia Albright, Archives Librarian: “These letters are first person accounts of what
Thanksgiving was like for these young women. Many of them were away from home for the holiday,
many of them were homesick, so the occasion really meant a lot to them.”
Today, Patricia Albright is sharing some of this first-hand Thanksgiving material with
student worker Kirsten Hansen.
Albright: “This is a journal that was kept by Louisa Ware who graduated in 1852. It’s
from 1848 so Mary Lyon was still alive at that time, and it really is one of our most
wonderful descriptions of Thanksgiving because she shows that Mary Lyon went into students’
rooms the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and asked if they would help with the preparation
of the food, and she had students preparing raisins, cranberry sauce, pies, helping with
the baking—really participating and preparing the feast.”
Albright: “There’s a photograph of students actually doing some of the baking. This is
very similar to what students would have done in preparation for the Thanksgiving feast.
Students worked in a variety of work circles, and this is the pie-making circle. Pies were
particularly popular because depending on the ingredients, they kept very well.
And usually for this kind of festivity, students might make as many as 100 pies just for the one dinner.”
Kirsten Hansen ’12, Archives and Special Collections student worker: “The most interesting
aspect for me is the sorts of food they were making, because, as Patty mentioned, it was
a lot more local. There was a lot more emphasis on food preservation, so mince meat pies,
you’d make them a couple of weeks in advance, and then eat them. So just the recipes they
were using and the sheer magnitude of the amount of food they were making to feed everyone
on a daily basis is really interesting.”
The magnitude of the menu, featuring enough food to feed the 275 or so students and faculty
members in attendance—and the ornate decoration of a Mount Holyoke Thanksgiving—is detailed
in this cross-written letter from student Melissa Usher in 1852.
Albright: “In those days, paper and postage were quite expensive, so students tried to
cram as much information as they could on one or two sheets of paper. Usually when they
finished writing in the normal way to write a letter, they would then start writing up
and down across the letter, and they would finish by writing in the margins of the letter.
Her handwriting is quite beautiful, so once you get accustomed to the pattern of how she’s written
this, it’s not too difficult to read, but I often wonder how people who first received
these letters responded when they saw them. You know, thanks a lot, dear.” (She laughs).
Thankfully, archives and special collections has a typewritten copy that’s a bit easier to read.
Albright: “The festivities really began the Wednesday before, when students started
making paper flowers, and preparing other wreaths and decorations, so the public rooms
of the seminary building were very decorated. Usually they were quite plain. So to have
all of these decorations around must have been very exciting. What’s really interesting
is that her letter also mentions that they had a Christmas tree in the seminary hall.
And for centuries, Christmas had not been a popular holiday in New England—Thanksgiving
was really the premiere holiday—but this shows the beginning of the combination of
the two celebrations. So after describing the decorations in great detail, Melissa gets
on to the most important part, which is, of course, the food. And she talks about the
roasted turkey that they had, potatoes, squash, tapioca pudding, pumpkin pies—a really traditional
Thanksgiving meal, which was, it’s important to remember, really a celebration of the harvest in New England.”
Albright, “These are photographs of other students who were here in the early 1850s.
Melissa Usher in her description of her Thanksgiving celebration says that for the evening reception,
she donned her black silk dress, and this is probably similar to what she wore to the reception.”
Usher also details some of the evening’s entertainment—which included a healthy dose
of calisthenics.
Albright, “These were exercises that students did as part of Mary Lyon’s program to keep
everybody healthy. They were actually very similar to dancing which was frowned upon
in those days, but students were allowed to move around in sort of rhythmic dancelike
patterns, and they were often songs that were sung to accompany these exercises.”
The end of that specific tradition, no doubt, is something for today’s students to be thankful for.
This is Mary Jo Curtis for the Mount Holyoke Office of Communications.