Walkabout: Giving Thanks in Brooklyn, 1881

Baptist Home, Bedford Stuyvesant


(Victorian Thanksgiving card)

One of this nation’s favorite presidents, Abraham Lincoln, formally instituted the holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863, as a way to join the nation during the Civil War. The holiday was based on traditional harvest festivals and the tales of our nation’s Pilgrim forbearers who landed on these shores and were helped by friendly Wampanoag tribesmen, their food and aid in farming enabling the Pilgrims to survive past the first winter in the new land. Thanksgiving, therefore, has always been about helping those who have less, and as the traditions of turkey, stuffing, and all of the other foods of the day became a part of American lore, the tradition of sharing the bounty with others continued.

Brooklyn’s Victorian Thanksgivings were very similar to our own today, with many of the same foods and traditions. Because there were few governmental or social provisions for the poor and less fortunate, it became the mission of religious and private institutions to take care of those who couldn’t do for themselves. Brooklyn, as I have shared in this column many times, had huge charitable organizations spread across Brownstone Brooklyn. These organizations took care of orphans, the elderly, and the poor and sick, often from large, rambling institutions, most of which are now gone. In 1881, the Brooklyn Eagle reported extensively on the goings-on at many of our charitable institutions. Here, without further comment, is a look at some of the celebrations, and the buildings they took place in. The article covered many more than mentioned here, showing the generosity, and the need, of Brooklyn’s people, during a time of great growth and expansion, as well as growing wealth.

Brooklyn Eagle, November 25, 1881

Thanksgiving Day of 1881 was extensively observed in Brooklyn. It may be because so many New Englanders have come over and settled here, or for the reason that this is peculiarly a city of homes and churches, or that the local cooks surpass any other cooks in skill, or that Long Island poultry is plumper, or that Kings County pies and puddings are more toothsome, but it is a fact the at the day is invariably celebrated here with as much enthusiasms and attention to detail as at any other point in the united States…In the charitable and public institutions the poor and unfortunate were not forgotten, and kindly souls remembered hundreds of sufferers who do not fall with the scope of organized benevolence.

Baptist Home, Bedford Stuyvesant

The Baptist Home

The Baptist Home for Aged People is one of the finest charities of the kind in this or any other country. There are about thirty inmates, old men and old women; whose last years are made pleasant in this delightful retreat by everything which the hands of loving relations could possibly supply…The Thanksgiving dinner was served in the basement of the home. It was a dinner that would have done honor to the table of an Alderman –even that of Alderman Richardson who, by the way, was present hoping to make things agreeable…Among the curiosities in the way of inmates were M. Le Claire and his wife, the former 86 years old…He served in the army of the first Napoleon as a private soldier at Waterloo. After coming to this country M. Le Claire met and became acquainted with on old man named Stuart, who fought at Waterloo on the other side. The two old fellows had their pictures taken together with their medals on.

Graham Home for Old Ladies. Sketch: Harper's Magazine

Graham Institute

A bountiful repast of turkey with all its concomitants was served to the old ladies of the Graham Institute on Washington Avenue, yesterday afternoon. The hour for the dinner was four o’clock. The ringing of the big gong at that hour brought down seventy aged matrons to the dining room. The inmates were all in first rate health and did justice to their Thanksgiving dinner…

The Children's Home for Destitute Children, Sterling and Vanderbilt Aven.

Home for Destitute Children

The Home for Destitute Children, on Butler Street (now Sterling Pl.) near Vanderbilt Avenue, gave to its inmates on of the best Thanksgiving dinners they have had in many years. The turkeys sent in by the friends of the institution were very numerous, so that the 110 boys and girls had as much as they could eat. But the turkey only formed a small part of the good things that covered the table. Oranges, apples, grapes, raisins, figs and nuts were abundantly served to the children who carried to their rooms what they could not eat of the fruits and confections. No exercises interfered with the digestion of the turkey, so that the little ones, if they felt inclined, could take a nap…

Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, Dean St. at Troy, Crown Heights North.

Howard Orphan Asylum

It was a white day yesterday for the children of the Howard (colored) Orphan Asylum, for they went out to dinner and spent the afternoon and evening. A fair for the benefit of the asylum is now in progress at the Lyceum on Washington Street, near Concord, and yesterday afternoon the youngsters, to the number of eighty boys and girls were brought down from the asylum in cars which were donated by President Betz, of the Brooklyn City Railroad. They reached the hall about 2 o’clock where they were served with dinner, and a very good dinner it was. The children remained in the hall during the afternoon and evening and enjoyed themselves thoroughly. After twilight the hall was crowded with people and the children sang songs, recited pieces, and in other ways showed the joy and pleasure that was in them. Shortly after 9 o’clock they were again embarking on the cars and transported back to the asylum. Bringing the children down to the fair was found to be a very excellent way of getting people interested in them, and the little folks enjoyed it more than if they had eaten their Thanksgiving dinner at the asylum.

Newsboy's Home, Poplar Street, Brooklyn Heights. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library.

Newsboy’s Home

The newsboys who seek shelter in the Newsboy’s Home, No. 60 Poplar Street, received an excellent dinner on Wednesday evening. At seven o’clock, the boys numbering about sixty sat down at a large table, and each of them was supplied with as much turkey as he could digest. In the afternoon the boys and girls who attend school and numbering about sixty-five, were also provided with a hearty and substantial meal.

St. John's Orphan Asylum. St. Marks and Albany Ave.



St. John’s Home for Boys, St. Marks Avenue

It would have been impossible for a happier or more enjoyable Thanksgiving to have been spent anywhere than that participated in by the little ones of St. John’s Home or Male Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, corner of St. Marks and Albany Avenue. Early in the morning or about half past seven o’clock, the orphans assembled in the chapel and after joining in mass sand the Te Deum Laudamus and other hymns of thanksgiving. Then followed breakfast and a long talk about the principal attraction of the day– the dinner par excellence of the year. As a kind of jovial introduction to the good things that there were to come, games and plays of an intensely amusing nature were indulged in, and the time was quickly passed until 12 o’clock arrived, when the summons to dinner traveled almost as rapidly as a cable message. In less time than it takes to write it, about 636 children ranging in age from 2 to 14 years of age, were seated at the tables and ready to begin their gastronomical operations. Over 600 pounds of turkey, two barrels of potatoes, three barrels of apples, two barrels of peanuts and sufficient homemade gingerbread and other cake to make a dyspeptic wonder at the capacities of “go as you please” stomachs, were devoured in an incredibly short period. Following this was the fun of the afternoon, which lasted for hours without abstainment.

Happy Thanksgiving, to all, and I hope you get a chance to share with friends, family, and a stranger, the bounty of the season and the year. Walkabouts, Past and Present, and the BOTD will all be back next week.

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