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Old Sturbridge Village, New England Thanksgiving

November 25, 2021

The Village will closed this year on Thanksgiving Day, but we wanted to give you an opportunity to learn about how early 19th-century New Englanders celebrated Thanksgiving!

Two costumed historians prepare a Thanksgiving meal

In her book Oldtown Folks, Harriet Beecher Stowe referred to Thanksgiving as “the king and high priest of all festivals.” It was a fitting name since Thanksgiving was the biggest holiday of the year in early 19th-century New England.

While the holiday is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November now, the day of celebration varied in early 19th-century New England. Governors typically chose a Thursday in late November or early December and families would eagerly anticipate the official proclamation of the holiday. In 1838, ten of the 26 states in the Union officially celebrated Thanksgiving. It did not become a national holiday until 1863.

Preparing for the Holiday

Similar to today, families would plan to travel and gather together to celebrate with a special meal. Even before the official proclamation from the state governor, many families started eagerly anticipating the holiday and preparing for it. In Oldtown Folks, Stowe reminisced about families baking dozens of pies in the weeks before the holiday and storing them in bedrooms or attics where “frozen solid, and thus well preserved in their icy fetters, they formed a great repository for all the winter months; and the pies baked at Thanksgiving often came out fresh and good with the violets of April.”

The Thanksgiving Table

While pie was and remains a Thanksgiving staple, there are some differences between the typical early 19th-century feast and the typical modern one. While turkey is the star of many Thanksgiving tables today, that was not always the case. If it was on the Thanksgiving table, it was often accompanied by other meats. In her 1845 book The New England Economical Housekeeper, Esther Allen Howland called for the following to be prepared for the great Thanksgiving feast:./

  • Roast Turkey, stuffed
  • A pair of chickens stuffed, and boiled, with cabbage and a piece of lean pork
  • A Chicken Pie
  • Potatoes; turnip sauce; squash; onions; gravy and gravy sauces; apple and cranberry sauce; oyster sauce; brown and white bread
  • Plum and Plain Pudding, with sweet sauce.
  • Mince, Pumpkin, and Apple Pies
  • Cheese
A Slice of History For Your Thanksgiving Table:

Consider adding a taste of 1830s culinary delights to your Thanksgiving Feast! Find original receipts (recipes) and modern translations for dishes like Marlborough pudding, carrot pie, apple and pork pie, gourd soup and more on our website by clicking the button below.

View Historic Receipts

Did you know?

  • In early New England, Thanksgiving was the biggest holiday of the year, far surpassing Christmas, which wasn’t celebrated in the tradition of the Puritans who settled the region.
  • Turkeys in the early 19th century were much smaller than today’s “butterballs,” and turkey wasn’t always on the Thanksgiving menu, because they were a lot of work to prepare for not much meat.
  • In the early 1800s, turkey “drovers” herded and marched turkeys on foot from central and western Massachusetts to the huge Brighton market just outside of Boston, Mass. to sell the birds to wealthy city dwellers.
  • Many vegetables weren’t peeled for everyday cooking, but they were for holidays like Thanksgiving to show the elevated status of the day.
  • Pies were baked weeks ahead of time and stored in unheated attics and bedrooms where they would freeze and keep for months. Pies not consumed at Thanksgiving would sometimes last until April.
  • The cranberry is one of three fruits native to North America, and was used by Native Americans to make pemmican – a survival food made of mashed cranberries mixed with deer meat. They also used cranberries in poultices to draw poison from wounds.


November 25, 2021


Old Sturbridge Village
1 Old Sturbridge Village Road
Sturbridge, MA 01566
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(800) 733-1830
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