To Grandmother’s House We Go: An Investigation into Lydia Maria Child’s Influence on American Thanksgiving Traditions

“Your great-great grandmother would be so proud,” my mother exclaimed as we worked side-by-side; she was coring and skinning pink lady apples while I attempted to roll out our gluten free rendition of Lydia Maria Child’s simple short crust recipe.

“Why?” I asked, looking down at my facsimile edition of The American Frugal Housewife to calculate how I was going to wrap our apples in the crust.

“Because you’re baking old-timey foods in an old-timey way,” she answered, handing the apples off to me. What my mother didn’t realize is how apropos her comment was to the entire purpose of my research project: tradition. Even though we were cooking on an entirely electric induction stove with highly processed gluten free flour and a vegan butter substitute, my mother thought we were the epitome of appearing “old-timey.” Lydia Maria Child, an inventor of the Thanksgiving and domestic tradition most likely would have been proud of my mother for saying such a thing.

1883, engraving in Letters of Lydia Maria Child, New-York Historical Society
Library, PS1293.Z8 1888.

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) was renowned in her day as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. These are aspects of her life explored at length by historians, but her role as an advocate for the domestic and traditional ways is often overlooked. Ironically, it is in this role as “domestic influencer” that Child may find her most enduring legacy. One soon realizes how crucial her work was in the modern construction of American Thanksgiving even if it is not so blatantly obvious or commonly known. There is a connection between Lydia Maria Child’s upbringing and the types of Thanksgiving traditions she would later encourage others to adopt across the United States. She  was born in early 1802 as Lydia Maria Francis, the daughter of baker David Convers Francis and mother Susannah Francis, a woman  described as “loved” by the community of Medford, Massachusetts. Convers Francis was credited in Medford as being the creator of the “Medford cracker,” an early version of the New England common cracker which, to this day, is eaten with clam chowder. In this sense, Child’s father was also a creator of tradition in his own right.

Perhaps it is no surprise that as the daughter of a baker and a homemaker, Lydia Maria Child held domestic tradition in high regard. In a biography by Thomas W. Higginson published in 1868, twelve years prior to her death, Child described her home life to the author, which included the following memory about the family tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving as a holiday during a time when it was not nationally observed:

… always, on the night before Thanksgiving, all the humble friends of the [Francis] household… some twenty or thirty in all, were summoned to preliminary entertainment. They there partook in an immense chicken-pie, pumpkin-pies (made in milk-pans), and heaps of doughnuts. They feasted in the large old-fashion kitchen, and went away loaded with crackers and bread by the father, and with pies by the mother, not forgetting “turn-overs” for their children.

It’s integral to note that during her childhood, approximately the 1810s, Thanksgiving was not yet established as an official national holiday; this changed when President Abraham Lincoln pronounced it so in 1863. It is possible that Child and her family celebrated the “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” which was first declared by George Washington in 1789, and later presidents who upheld such Thanksgiving Proclamations. It is not hard, however, to imagine the construction of such a holiday scene in order to further the domestic image of Lydia Maria Child as, “… some kindly and omnipresent aunt, beloved forever by the heart of childhood…” Such a domestic image of the past is overshadowed in the present by Child’s impact on abolition. There is one major piece of the domestic tradition that Child constructed, but her role as a creator is kept invisible as her creation was passed down.

Could you finish the lyric, “over the river and through the woods…”? I would bet that more than a few of you would say you could. Could you tell me who wrote it? This question is a little trickier… Was it Alvin and the Chipmunks on their 1999 Chipmunks Christmas album? No, it was written by Mrs. Lydia Maria Child in 1844, and published in a collection of poems and stories entitled Flowers for Children Part II, For Children from Four to Six Years Old. The original title of the poem itself was “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day,” and it spans four pages of the storybook. Let us recall for a moment that at the time of the poem’s publishing, Thanksgiving had still not been declared a national holiday. This solidifies the hypothesis that Lydia Maria Child celebrated Thanksgiving based not on it being an official holiday, but a cultural precedent. Child’s poem helps to construct ideas of Thanksgiving further which appear to be based on her childhood reminiscence of what the holiday meant to her family: sharing warm baked goods with a whole host of people, and specifically with children.

The final two stanzas perfectly represent this idyllic Thanksgiving tradition that has carried on through modern generations of American families:

Over the river, and through the wood—/When grandmother sees us come,/She will say,/Oh dear,/The children are here,/Bring a pie for every one./… Now grandmother’s cap I spy!/Hurra for the fun!/Is the pudding done?/Hurra for the pumpkin pie!

The final image of the poem is children joyously gathered around a typical grandmother figure, who is holding a steaming plate with a large pudding on top. Although the poem starts as a sledding and winter activity song, it ends with a stress on the domestic scene and tradition of Thanksgiving foods. This romanticization of the holiday adds to the creation of it as a constructed “tradition.”

Lydia Maria Child, “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day,” in Flowers for Children Part II, For Children from Four to Six Years Old (New York, NY: C.S. Francis and Co., 1845), 28, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/Juvenile.29648.1.

In response to Lydia Maria Child’s “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day,” an author in 1918 wrote nostalgically of the poem, “I don’t believe that boys and girls have as good times now as they did when Lydia Maria Child wrote this… everybody piled into a big sleigh, had a jolly ride and were happy to find one of grandmother’s turkey dinners ready for them.” It is quite obvious that to the journalist, James Wiggins Coe, food and family are a huge part of what makes Thanksgiving feel right. Coe imagined the future of Thanksgiving warily, “In twenty years from now I suspect boys and girls will be flying in airplanes to their grandmothers’ on Thanksgiving Day.” This horrifying notion of change is alleviated for just a moment as Coe thought of the traditional aspects of the holiday. Specifically, he was pleased with and hopeful of the continuation of traditions that Lydia Maria Child had constructed.

James Wiggins Coe, “Old Fashioned Thanksgiving,” The Richmond Palladium, November 23, 1918, 43 edition, sec. 321.

Although it may seem that Child was thinking of days long gone when she would fill up on delicious, warm pastries after a day spent out playing in the snow, perhaps she was actually reacting to changes within her own cultural element. Child may not have longed so much for the past as she was dealing with the present to establish a traditional outlook. As written by Eric Hobsbawm in The Invention of Tradition, “… the peculiarity of ‘invented’ traditions is that the continuity with it is largely factitious… they [the traditions] are responses to novel situations which take place by quasi-obligatory repetition.” What so incensed Lydia Maria Child to reinvigorate a domestic tradition during the early and mid-19th century? Child’s writings on domesticity and Thanksgiving tradition came at a period of rapid change in the United States, and her work falls within the earliest attempts at colonial revival and interest in moral reform. Although it was intended to focus on the domestic tradition created by Lydia Maria Child, it is impossible to leave out her abolitionist practices that would have been encouragement to her romanticization of the simpl, rosy life. As mentioned in the article, “Popular Science and Political Thought Converge: Colonial Survival Becomes Colonial Revival, 1830-1910,” worsening tensions between the Northern and the Southern United States over enslavement led to a nationwide feeling of anxiety. Many, Lydia Maria Child included, longed for a sense of both security and unity. By constructing tradition, and specifically reviving images of the ideal past, the safety and simplicity that pre- and post-Civil War era Americans thought they missed was now accessible to them in the form of food, literature, art, and architecture.

Child herself, in the twelfth edition of The American Frugal Housewife, felt that changes to the domestic world she had known her whole life were not for the better. She wrote, “It is true, and therefore an old remark, that the situation and prospects of a country may be justly estimated by the character of its women… Is the present education of young ladies likely to contribute to their own ultimate happiness, or to the welfare of the country? … but we do think the general tone of female education is bad.” Further, Child believed that the focus in a young lady’s education had moved away from teaching girls the ways of the domestic world before they entered marriage. By upholding and concocting traditions that kept a moral order to society, the impending Civil War would not take away all senses of normalcy or comfort. Additionally, as the country approached the centennial celebration of its independence, such traditions became even more precious. Child would live to see both the Civil War and the centennial anniversary of the United States, and during both ventures she would establish ideas of domestic traditions to give a sense of comfort to her readers. Even if she was pushing for change in terms of abolishing slavery, many of her books upheld what she saw as traditional domesticity. These works include, but are not limited to, The Mother’s Book, The American Frugal Housewife, Flowers for Children, The Girl’s Book, and The Family Nurse, or, Companion of the Frugal Housewife ed. by an Eminent Physician.

It was through adapting the recipes of The American Frugal Housewife that I attempted to glimpse into the domestic traditions that Lydia Maria Child created. Based on receipts written a decade before her famous Thanksgiving poem, I took on a historical mindset with the intent to discover the importance of domesticity as a sphere of comfort for those who entered it. On the Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, I baked with my mother to prepare for a feast of proportions that Lydia Maria Child herself would have been proud of. I must state that this was an adaptation rather than an interpretation due to constraints in truly embracing the historical aspects of Lydia Maria Child’s recipes. My family has a whole host of allergies (namely dairy and gluten), so I worked to adapt the recipes to enjoy the steaming array of pies, puddings, and cakes, as Child had supposedly done in her child. The final spread of items that I made included: apple puddings, cider cake, a gingerbread cake, a cranberry pie, and small squash pies. The process was exhausting, but I was much better off than the Civil War era domestic in my modern kitchen with beeping timers, fridges to keep fresh ingredients cold, and access to out-of-season fruits and such.

Since the last line of Child’s Thanksgiving poem asks, “Is the pudding done?” I thought it was only appropriate for my selection of Holiday baked goods to include one. The first recipe I attempted of Child’s were her apple puddings, or as I lovingly called them while baking them “crustapples.” Quite literally, they are a skinned and cored apple, which are covered with a layer of simple shortcrust, then boiled for thirty minutes while tied in a pudding cloth. Since this was my first time working with a pudding cloth, the apples were not wrapped tightly enough, and water found its way in. While the apple puddings’ crusts were not completely waterlogged, they were quite mushy on the outside; a domestic expert, such as Child, may not have had as much trouble with their puddings. The overall taste of this dish? Like an apple pie without seasoning. However, at the end of a fall day, the warm apple and the buttery shortcrust did feel like they could easily fit into our regular, Thanksgiving dessert traditions of sweet potato pie and mashed yams with marshmallows.

The next venture into the world of Lydia Maria Child’s traditional Thanksgiving baked goods were the squash and cranberry pies. These two dishes were shockingly easy to recreate and delicious, too. It felt natural to make a pie for Thanksgiving, it was the fillings that were unfamiliar to my modern brain. I had initially bought a whole pumpkin in order to make a pumpkin pie, but when I cut into it the insides were rotting. Rather than give my entire family food poisoning as a holiday gift, I went ahead and used acorn squash (the second-best option provided by Child). I relied on my single pie tin and cupcake tin for helping to hand raise the gluten-free pie crust, but both crusts turned out to be flaky and delicious. I was especially pleased with the cranberry pie, which tasted perfectly tart and had just enough cinnamon and nutmeg to give into the ideal spice combination for Thanksgiving. The squash tarts, which I made in a cupcake tin because we didn’t have a second pie tin, turned out aromatic and sweet. Child suggested three eggs to a quart of milk, and, if I redid the recipe, I believe I would take out one of the eggs. As she said in her cookbook, though, “Books of this kind have usually been written for the wealthy: I have written for the poor. I have said nothing about rich cooking; those who can afford to be epicures will find the best of information in the ‘Seventy-five Receipts.’” Rich the tarts were, indeed.

As for the cider and gingerbread cakes, I found them to be seasonally fit as well. The gingerbread turned out to be rich and caved in the center. This may be the consequence of Child who recommended one full cup of molasses alongside a cup of apple cider. She added at the very end of the recipe, “…if these proportions make it too thin, use less liquid the next time you try.” I would definitely take this word of advice the next time I bake her gingerbread cake. As for the cider cake, it almost tasted like a simple cornbread. My entire family agreed that if we were to make it a traditional part of our holiday meals, we would be adding little apple pieces into the cake itself, or more cider and cinnamon for flavor. I incessantly reminded my family that they must “take a historical mindset” when enjoying the foods. My littlest stepbrother, who is twelve-years old, attempted to be kind about the thick molasses flavor of the gingerbread, “I have to understand that people of the past would have liked this richness and wouldn’t have had that much sugar.” I allowed him to add a bit of powdered sugar onto his piece, which definitely lightened the flavor.

The first piece of gingerbread cake was enjoyed as we worked on some of the other recipes. This was the piece with powdered sugar that my stepbrother and I shared.

While none of Lydia Maria Child’s recipes had been in my family’s holiday traditions prior to this year, they added a new dimension to our holiday celebration. They reminded us of the fairly recent history of Thanksgiving, of the ways that we ourselves uphold a comforting ideal of what the holiday should be like, and the ways in which the creators of tradition can become invisible as time goes on. When I began researching Lydia Maria Child and The American Frugal Housewife, I did not know that she was a pioneer in the way we see Thanksgiving to this day, and I had no idea that she had written the song I’d sung my whole life during the holiday season. Now I can see just how her upbringing and the context of her adulthood led her to finding pride in traditional values. During tumultuous situations, it is easy to resort back to nostalgia and what makes someone feel the safest. Tradition is a large part of that safety, and I see it in the way that my family must follow the routines of putting Christmas decorations up the day after Thanksgiving, or putting on a “performance” for ourselves on Thanksgiving Day by dressing up and using our best glasses and plates. We feed into the traditions just as much, or even more so, than Lydia Maria Child did herself.

Bibliography

Baer, Helene G. “Welcome Home, Maria.” In The Heart Is Like Heaven, 1–6. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv4t818b.4.

Child, Lydia Maria. The American Frugal Housewife. 12th ed. Boston, MA: Carter, Hendee, and Co., 1833.

———. “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day.” In Flowers for Children Part II, For Children from Four to Six Years Old, 25–28. New York, NY: C.S. Francis and Co., 1845. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/Juvenile.29648.1.

Coe, James Wiggins. “Old Fashioned Thanksgiving.” The Richmond Palladium. November 23, 1918, 43 edition, sec. 321.

Green, Harvey. “Popular Science and Political Thought Converge: Colonial Survival Becomes Colonial Revival, 1830-1910.” Journal of American Culture 6, no. 4 (Winter 1983): 3–24. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1542-734x.1983.0604_3.x.

Higginson, Thomas W. “Lydia Maria Child.” In Eminent Women of the Age, 38–65. Hartford, CT: S.M. Betts & Company, 1868. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/eminentwomenofa00hart.

Hobsbawm, Eric. “Introduction: Inventing Tradition.” In The Invention of Tradition, edited by Terence Ranger, 1–14. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Mann, Moses W. “The Withington Bakery.” The Medford Historical Society Papers 18 (1915). http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2005.05.0018%3Achapter%3D15.

National Archives. “Congress Establishes Thanksgiving,” August 15, 2016. https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving.

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