Thanksgiving in the 1890s

Two Thanksgiving reports from the 1890s illustrate the coming of hard times to Nebraska. The 1890s saw the country’s worst economic depression until the 1930s.

“The President of the United States and the governors of the various states have issued the annual Thanksgiving proclamations, setting apart Thursday, the 25th of November, as a day of thanksgiving and rejoicing for the blessings we have received this year,” observed The Western Stockman and Cultivator of Omaha on November 15, 1891. “No distress is prevalent anywhere in this country. No failure of crops has visited any section. The health of the people at large never was better. Plenty and contentment prevail everywhere. As a mass the people of this country will never be in better shape before the millennium and we ought to give thanks heartily.”

In 1891 that report was a polite exaggeration of the county’s economic health, but by 1893 the hardships were undeniable—and there was no such thing as unemployment insurance or any social “safety net.” Many formerly independent people found themselves reduced to beggary.

 Figaro, an Omaha weekly noted on December 2, 1893, noted: “Thanksgiving day was passed in Omaha without any especial effort upon the part of the wealthier citizens to ease the burden of poverty that hangs so heavily upon the working classes at present. It is authoritatively estimated that there are two thousand people in Omaha homeless and absolutely without means of support.

“It behooves us who can afford it to give at least one of these unfortunates a place to sleep and enough to eat to sustain life without actual misery. An easy task it would certainly be to furnish lodging and food to one deserving person, and how easy it is to find poor who are deserving of every assistance that can be given. This being at the very beginning of the winter, now is certainly the time to plan as to what you can do for the unfortunates this winter.”

Figaro didn’t address the larger question of how so many people could have so little while so few had so much, but in a separate article the editor urged prospective benefactors to look ahead to Christmas: “If you did not make some poor person happy Thanksgiving do not miss the opportunity [on] Christmas. The fact that you made some poor unfortunate happier than he would have been otherwise will cause you[r] own dinner to taste better. Probably you smoked three twenty-five cent cigars, whereas if you had been satisfied with three-for-a-quarter you would have been as well pleased and could have given the fifty cents you saved to some deserving poor family. Just for the sake of experiment try this Christmas day.”

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