The Great Depression was the worst economic disaster in American history. During the 1930s people adapted to difficult times and helped each other as the country tried to recover. Through it all they still found reasons to give thanks at Thanksgiving. While looking back on this time in our community, it’s important to also acknowledge and honor the truth about the holiday while supporting our Indigenous peoples every day of the year.

The traditional Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce was already well established by the time of the Great Depression. “Crisp sharp air out-of-doors, busy preparations for the feast filling the air with glorious scents within,” wrote a syndicated columnist in the Bellingham Herald in 1938, “That’s the Thanksgiving story that never loses its charm.”

But budgets were tight and many opted for more affordable meats than turkey, like chicken and beef. Stores used sales and gimmicks to tempt customers in. Howard’s Market, at Railroad and Magnolia Streets, offered free balloons and shopping bags at their “Thanksgiving party” in 1934. Others threw in a free turkey with select purchases. In 1932, for example, Weisfield & Goldberg, at 102 West Holly Street, gave a free eight-pound dressed turkey with a purchase of $24 worth of on-sale items. In 1938, B.B. Furniture Company, located at 1311-1319 Bay Street, handed out a free turkey with the purchase of a Monarch range. That would set someone back $89.50, or five dollars down and five dollars a month.

“Stuffed bird to stuff a boy.” Tommy’s ready to dig into his mother’s roasted turkey fresh from the oven. This photo accompanied recipes for oyster, skinless frankfurter, sausage, and skinless frankfurter/rice stuffings. Image from Bellingham Herald, November 20, 1939. Photo courtesy Washington State Library

Some stores offered Thanksgiving specialty items. Bakeries sold freshly baked pumpkin and mince pies. Fruit cake was another popular option. People could preorder fruitcake from Fisher’s Bakery at 1327 Cornwall Avenue to pick up closer to the holiday.

Ice cream was particularly popular, despite the usually chilly weather. In 1937, Hillview Dairy, at 1824 Cornwall Avenue, offered ice cream in individual turkey-shaped molds, as well as bricks of ice cream with a dyed turkey design in the center perfect for serving in slices straight from the freezer. Holiday flavors included cranberry sherbet and pumpkin or mincemeat ice cream. Darigold sold individual ice cream pumpkin “pies” for ten cents each in 1931.

For those who did not want to cook, a holiday dinner could be had at a hotel or restaurant. Prices were low during the Great Depression, usually between fifty cents and a dollar. In 1932, Ford’s, the “moonlight pie headquarters,” in the Herald Building at 1146 North State Street, served a full turkey dinner for 75 cents — or 60 cents for a chicken option.

A turkey chef reminds people of Thanksgiving sales at Mallahan’s Fountain Grocery in this ad from the November 22, 1935 edition of the Bellingham Herald. Photo courtesy Washington State Library

Community Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving Day, businesses and stores closed to give people time to spend with their families, though some sawmills continued production. Churches held union, or joint, Thanksgiving services.

Groups organized inexpensive gatherings and parties around or on the holiday. Typical was a social given by the Scandinavian Methodist Church’s Young People’s Society in the church’s basement. Members and guests enjoyed pumpkin pie and coffee. Other groups added musical and speaking programs to their gatherings and collected donations for charity.

Dances, often with live music, were also very popular. In 1937 the Eagles held an annual “grand ball” in their hall Thanksgiving night. They hired Jay Curtis’ orchestra while the Welcome Grange hired Chuck Sudduth’s orchestra to play at their 1938 Thanksgiving dance.

Schools held their own programs before the holiday, centering around the themes of thankfulness. In 1932 Lowell School junior high students put together a program of orchestral music, speeches, and readings themed to the holiday. Sixth graders also performed a short play, “The First Thanksgiving.”

Another popular tradition was Thanksgiving day football games — Bellingham residents could choose between high school and Western Washington State University games. In 1938 the WWU Vikings clashed against Eastern Washington University at Bellingham’s Battersby Field. Other teams had to spend the day away from home when traveling for the matchups. In 1930 Whatcom High School traveled to to Wenatchee to play against the Wenatchee High School “Applepickers.”

Like something out of a sci-fi movie, a giant turkey looms over football players in this holiday image from the front page of the Bellingham Herald on Thanksgiving Day 1936. Photo courtesy Washington State Library

Helping Those In Need

During the Great Depression, putting food on the table was hard for many and charity groups worked to ensure families had enough to eat on Thanksgiving. The Bellingham Family Welfare Association, Salvation Army, Volunteers of America, and the Elks distributed baskets filled with ingredients for the Thanksgiving feasts, from turkeys to vegetables. These baskets were packed by groups such as the Campfire Girls, Girls Reserve of the YWCA, Visiting Nurses Association, veteran organizations and auxiliaries, churches, and schools. People donated enough food to serve hundreds of families every year.

For unemployed single men, many of them living on the street, groups such as the Salvation Army and Lighthouse Mission hosted free holiday dinners. “We asked no questions,” said the superintendent of the Lighthouse Mission at 1313 E Street in 1939. “If they were hungry, we fed them.” The need was great. The Mission served 140 men in 1932 alone.

The Thanksgiving holiday offered hope during the trials and troubles of the Great Depression.  “It was a day of feasting and goodwill,” the Bellingham Herald reported in 1939. Even during the hard times, people could find reasons to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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