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When Thanksgiving Meant a Fancy Meal Out on the Town

The Thanksgiving feast has always been about extravagance, but at one time the custom was to go out to a restaurant instead of cooking it yourself. This was mainly during the Gilded Age (1870-1900), when fancy restaurants opened in American cities. It may seem strange to us now, but consider that the Pilgrims didn't eat at home with the family -they had a massive community feast to celebrate the harvest.

It seems to have been during the Gilded Age when the Thanksgiving banquet at the luxury hotel or restaurant first became popular. This coincided with a general movement into fashionable new restaurants by the upper class. “Before then, you stayed home because you didn’t want the riffraff to see what you were doing,” says Evangeline Holland, a social historian who writes about the late Victorian and Edwardian periods on her website edwardianpromenade.com “But with the rise of the nouveau riche, people in England started dining out at restaurants and Americans followed suite.”

What better day to flaunt what you had than on Thanksgiving? “With the Gilded Age, everything is over the top,” says Stephen O’Neill, associate director and curator of collections at Pilgrim Hall Museum. “Thanksgiving is very much a celebration of abundance, so I think they sort of used that as an excuse to promote these extravagantly large dinners.”

The affairs were held at such famous, luxury hotels and restaurants as the Vendome, Delmonico’s and the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Even luxury cruise ships got into the act, offering elaborate Thanksgiving Day dinners to their seaborne passengers. The upper crust in smaller communities had them, as well, usually at the fanciest place in town.

The custom tapered off, particularly during the Great Depression and World War II. Somewhere along the line, the idea of home and family came to be associated with Thanksgiving dinner, but it was not always so. Read more about the extravagant offerings of the poshest hotels and restaurants of the time at Smithsonian's Food and Think blog.


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