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FDR’s Failed Thanksgiving Experiment: Benefiting Big Business, Dividing a Country

by Christopher Koopman on November 27, 2013

in Government-Granted Privilege, Study of American Capitalism

Nothing is free from the threat of political favoritism.  Not even the holidays.  And, as it turns out, Thanksgiving actually fell prey to it for a few years under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But first, a bit of Thanksgiving History.  At the request of the first Federal Congress, President Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin [sic].”  Subsequent presidents followed Washington by issuing their own Thanksgiving Proclamations.  However, the dates and months of the proclamations varied.  Eventually, under Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving was set to be regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November. Franklin and Eleanor (FDR Bio, part 1)

In 1939, the last Thursday in November fell on the last day of the month.  As a result, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November.

Why did Roosevelt see the need to move Thanksgiving?

The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein and Arthur Delaney explain that “Roosevelt was responding to pressure from retail lobbyists who worried that Christmas shopping would lag because Thanksgiving was set to fall particularly late that year, on Nov. 30.”

In fact, Stein and Delaney note:

Lew Hahn, general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, sent a message to Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins that although he didn’t dare bring this to the president’s attention, a late Thanksgiving might have a ‘possible adverse effect on the production and distribution of holiday goods.’

Hopkins told Roosevelt anyway, and the president, sensitive to the needs of business, moved the date of the holiday.

However, not everyone was interested in moving the holiday for the benefit of big retailers.  Small businesses wrote to the President, explaining:

[W]e have waited years for a late Thanksgiving to give us an advantage over the large stores, and we are sadly disappointed at your action, in this matter.  Kindly reconsider and oblige thousands of small retail storekeepers throughout this country.

Ultimately, 32 states issued proclamations moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday, while 16 states refused to change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November.   For two years, the United States had two Thanksgivings.  The President and part of the country celebrated it on the second to last Thursday in November.  The rest of the country celebrated it a week later.

After two years, and four Thanksgivings, Congress put an end to the confusion by setting a fixed date for the holiday.  In 1941, the House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring “the last” Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving Day.  The Senate amended the resolution to read that it be celebrated on “the fourth” Thursday, to take into account those years when there are five Thursdays in November.  On December 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed the resolution, thereby establishing the modern Thanksgiving Holiday.

Did Roosevelt’s “Franksgiving” experiment work?  Not exactly.  Stein and Delaney write that the Commerce Department found that expected expansion of retail sales never occurred.  In the end, they note, Roosevelt conceded that the economic benefits of moving Thanksgiving had not been worth the struggle.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey.  Just think, at one you time, you could’ve done it twice.

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