Stereoviews and Culture: Thanksgiving
Posted on November 16, 2022
This post is written by Kelvin Ramsey '79, donor of the Kelvin Ramsey Collection of Lantern Slides and Stereoviews.
Although national Thanksgivings were periodically proclaimed from Colonial times in America, Thanksgiving as a holiday was not formally adopted until Abraham Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving in 1863. In 1870 President Ulysses Grant signed the Holidays Act that made Thanksgiving a yearly declared holiday. It is possibly at that point that Thanksgiving entered the national consciousness. It is perhaps no coincidence that in 1871, the largest stereoview distributor of the time, F. G. Weller, published three Thanksgiving-themed stereoviews. These stereoviews depict a family at Thanksgiving table, an embodiment of “Columbia” giving thanks, and a third, shown below, of a beggar boy at his Thanksgiving table.
F. G. Weller was one of the premier publishers of genre stereoviews. Genre views were composed to tell a complete story in one (or in some instances a series) of stereoviews with only the title to guide the imagination. This image is simply composed with a boy, a small lunch, and a wooden crate for a table. The simplicity reflects the sparseness of his Thanksgiving dinner. The boy has long hair and is dressed in coarse clothing. On a wooden crate is his lunch of an apple and a sandwich as well as his hat. His hands resting on the crate are dirty. The background is unadorned with boards that are either a fence or the side of a building. Rather than looking at the camera, the boy is looking upward. Is he giving Thanks to God, or is he reflecting on how little he has? What does it say about our Thanksgiving celebrations? If you wish to know more about F. G. Weller and his stereoviews, I highly recommend the “Sentiment and Irony” web publication by Melody Davis. Many of the views were from my collection, and now live in the W&M Libraries Special Collections Research Center.
Is there a connection between this view and the Ragamuffin parade held in New York City, which began around 1870? Children dressed up as beggars with oversize clothing and sometimes masks on Thanksgiving Day and begged “Anything for Thanksgiving?” Just like Halloween, they would get a piece of candy, an apple, or a penny. The major parade lasted until the 1940’s when it was supplanted by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The tradition, however, has carried on in cities such as Hoboken that still have Ragamuffin Parades and costume contests.
You can see other special collections and rare books related to the history of Thanksgiving via our database and catalog.