Thanksgiving in Cincinnati 100 Years Ago: Pricey Birds, Americanism, And A Baby Marathon

Cincinnati was hardly in the mood for giving thanks 100 years ago. This is what Thanksgiving 1919 looked like in the Queen City.
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With turkeys costing more than $70 in 2019 dollars, consumers in 1919 opted for chickens, ducks and even young pigs for their Thanksgiving meal. Recurring character “Old Man Grump” displays an empty basket and a pocketbook snapped tightly shut.

Image Courtesy the Cincinnati Post, November 26, 1919 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

One hundred years ago, Cincinnati was hardly in the mood for giving thanks. Prices for everything rebounded after wartime rationing and booze, outlawed during the war, would remain forbidden as the U.S. drifted into Prohibition.

Sugar prices made front-page news in 1919. After years of scarcity, cane sugar was back on the market, albeit at 22 cents per pound (compared to around 50 cents per pound today).

But the big Thanksgiving birds hit the pocketbook worst of all. Turkeys ran 45 to 50 cents per pound—maybe $5.00 for the somewhat skinnier birds available back then. With inflation, $5.00 in 1919 is approximately equal to $74.00 today. Lots of Cincinnati households opted for duck or chicken, even shoats (young pigs) that year.

For those who could afford a turkey, the Cincinnati Post [November 26, 1919] offered a suggested Thanksgiving menu that will mostly look familiar to families today:

Oyster cocktail, consommé, roast turkey with stuffing and giblet sauce, cranberry jelly, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, celery, salted nuts, ginger sherbet, pumpkin pie, coffee.

Notice that no alcoholic beverages are listed. With national prohibition imminent and wartime restrictions still in place, Cincinnati was pretty much dry in 1919. People hoarded beverages and burglars followed the liquid loot. The Post’s “Village Gossip” [November 25, 1919] offered advice:

Again somebody’s cellar has been robbed. This time it’s a cellar on Bach-av., from which 18 bottles of wine and 3.5  gallons of whiskey were stolen. As usual, I feel obliged to write the unfortunate victim a letter, to wit: My Dear Sir: I see by the papers that your cellar has been robbed. It merely goes to show how dangerous it is to keep one’s valuables at home when all the banks rent safety deposit boxes. Trusting you will profit by the lesson, I remain, Yours for conservation, The Village Gossip.

The long association of Thanksgiving and sports had certainly been established by 1919, even without a television to gather around. Miami University easily defeated the University of Cincinnati in their 20th match-up. With the win, Miami led the series 11 to 9 (after this year’s game, Miami still leads the series 59-58-7).

While some may trace Turkey Day races to the mid-Twentieth Century, the YMCA sponsored what they called a “Baby Marathon” of six miles from Fort Thomas to downtown Cincinnati—a bit short, but roughly equivalent to a 10-K race. Winner was Carl Liebtag of Madisonville, a UC sophomore.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under a new conductor, Eugene Ysaye, spent Thanksgiving at Carnegie Hall, performing a concert to excellent reviews. Henry T. Fink of the Evening Post was delighted:

I expected a great deal from Mr. Ysaye, but I was taken off my feet by the splendid vitality he put into the Franck symphony. I didn’t know there was so much red blood in it as played by the well-balanced Cincinnati Orchestra under Ysaye leadership.

The Cincinnati Post editorialized that Americans should unite in their thanks for Americanism. Positioning a decidedly jingoistic outlook against the threat of Bolshevism, the Post [November 37, 1919] thundered:

We—each of us—have many good and sufficient reasons for being thankful this Thanksgiving Day. And not the least of these is that we are Americans. The Americanism, planted on the virgin soil of a new land, an unbroken wilderness of savages and waste, shaped and guarded by the lifeblood of men noble and brave, is ours by inheritance and ours by acceptance.

The Enquirer [November 27, 1919] picked up the same theme in decidedly more obtuse language:

We are being tried in the fires of an incipient revolution; we have been led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil of lawlessness; we have problems to solve which stagger our wisest and noblest leaders.

Throughout the city, children celebrated Thanksgiving in ways that have long (and in some cases happily) been forgotten:

    • The Sisters of Charity observed entertainments for Catholic school children featuring fancy dancing, Swedish dancing, “drilling,” and songs.
    • At the Boys Opportunity Farm, the residents had a gunless rabbit hunt, chasing cottontails over the institutional lawn.
    • The Cincinnati Orphan Asylum inmates presented a program that included songs, recitations, and a dramatic reading of the President’s annual proclamation.
    • The Young Ladies Sodality at St. Xavier High School offered a doll palace, a sale of dolls, and a turkey supper.
    • At Holy Cross Hall on Mount Adams, the holiday was marked by a euchre tournament.

At 1745 Denham Street in Fairmount, a most unusual occurrence marked Thanksgiving in 1919. While Henry and Lena Garling celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, three of their children were married at the family home. Daughter Frieda was married to George Stortz Jr., son Edward married Annah Johnson, and Henry Garling Jr. married Hilda Heutle.

Seven couples marched into the Hamilton County Courthouse, which was open for business as usual on Thanksgiving Day, to take out marriage licenses. One couple in particular seemed, at first glance, to be unusual: Pearl Belyea Watson married Mildred F. Krapp. It turns out that Pearl was, in fact, a man, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in fact.

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