Thanksgiving Day in Columbus in 1912 was the coldest day in the year – at least so far. The temperature hovered at 22 degrees Fahrenheit and was three degrees colder than the 25 degrees recorded on the day before.
Despite the cold it was still rather pleasant on that cold holiday. Snow the previous day had left a “trace” on the ground but not all that much to speak about. By the morning of Thanksgiving Day, most of it was gone.
It was not the coldest day the city had ever seen on Thanksgiving Day, and because there was no snow or rain, people came out of their home to enjoy a day off from work. Most public offices were closed and for the first time the post office did not deliver mail on Thanksgiving Day. Almost every business of any substance gave their workers this day off in 1912. The exceptions of course were in the entertainment field. Restaurants, theaters and other “places of amusement” opened early and stayed open late.
Local papers reported that the railroad stations in the city were quite busy with more people arriving than departing. Some of the people leaving town were men departing to follow an old American custom of hunting for one’s dinner on Thanksgiving Day. Others were simply people who worked in Columbus or who had been visiting the city but whose families were elsewhere.
Most churches held special services during the day to remind people not only of the blessings they had received but to remember those less fortunate than themselves.
Ample contributions had been made to local charities. The Volunteers of America alone delivered more than 700 baskets of food to needy families. As one account noted “Each basket contained a peck of potatoes, half a peck of apples, canned goods, a piece of beef or chicken, onions and other vegetables, bread, butter, flour, coffee and sugar.” In addition, the Volunteers served Thanksgiving dinner all day at their mission at 80 S. Front St. Ten turkeys had been donated by local businessman James Kilbourne who also gave every employee at his Kilbourne and Jacobs Manufacturing Co. a 10 pound turkey as well. Several other companies also gave gifts of food to their employees.
Columbus, as a state capital, also was a city of state public institutions. Among them were the Ohio School for the Blind, the Ohio School for the Deaf, the Columbus State Hospital for the Mentally Ill, the Columbus Development Center and the Ohio Penitentiary. According to the Ohio Board of Administration, “the five institutions will require 7,500 pounds of turkey” on Thanksgiving Day.”
Special programs were held at each of the institutions. As an example, inmates at the Ohio Penitentiary were treated to a “motion picture show” in the prison auditorium. A local newspaper noted that “sensational plays, like those where the heroine is kidnapped and the villain brought to justice by the sheriff’s posse” were not shown. Instead, films with “a religious or moral lesson” were presented. In addition to the films and a Thanksgiving dinner, the prisoners were treated to serenades by the prison orchestra. The inmates listened to the concerts while confined to their cells.
So, for people with time on their hands, what exactly did one do on Thanksgiving Day if one wanted to be out and about? In addition to matinee and evening productions at local theatres and a variety of offerings at local amusement parks, there were a number of special events as well.
North High School began a carnival on Thanksgiving evening to raise money to help pay off the debt on its athletic field. A doll bazaar to benefit St. Patrick’s School was open on Thanksgiving Day. And for the more sports minded, a football game was played at Ohio Field near High Street between the students of Ohio State University and visitors from the Michigan “Ags” ([now Michigan State University). After a hard fought game, Michigan won 35-20.
But for most people in 1912, Thanksgiving Day, after the praying and playing and occasional pontificating were done, was mostly about having a memorable dinner. Many if not most residents of the capital city had that dinner at home with family and friends. One interesting note about one hundred years ago is that many people did not have a turkey dinner.
A local newspaper estimated that at 25 cents a pound only about one family in three could afford a turkey dinner; 25 cents a pound may sound inexpensive until one remembers that the average worker made roughly $2 to $3 a day at that time. With a 10-pound turkey costing $2.50, many people simply could not afford a turkey dinner. What did people eat instead of turkey? For many, chicken was a less expensive substitute. And for that part of the population who could not afford a chicken there were always rabbits, geese and other cheaper main courses.
In any case most families had a special meal on a special day.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.