Imagine having a new guest at this year’s Thanksgiving table. An older woman, with flawless skin and dark hair that belie the 80 odd years-old you know her to be.
Before the blessing is said, everyone takes turns saying what they’re thankful for. “A good education,” says the group’s most recent college graduate. “Family,” says Aunt Merrilyn. “My health,” intones Grandpa Bob. “My friends,” adds Susann. “My job,” says Tom. “That I’m going to leave this world a little better place,” offers Patty.
When it’s the guest’s turn, she looks around the table from her long-lashed hazel eyes, and her face opens in a long, slow smile. “In truth, my life is a continuous thanksgiving.”
The words sound a little saccharine, a little Pollyanna, don’t they? But when Sarah Josepha Hale, “Mother of Thanksgiving,” spoke them at the age of 85, she had already lived a full life of unexpected blessing, and she was truly thankful. Did you know that she is responsible for your celebration of Thanksgiving this last Thursday of every November? Sarah Josepha Hale lobbied governors and legislatures, Secretaries of State and five presidents for a national day of Thanksgiving before President Abraham Lincoln finally declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
The blessings we so often mention at our Thanksgiving gatherings are ones she would have mentioned, too.
Education: Sarah was born in Newport, NH, in April 1788 to a family that revered the patriots who fought the hard-won Revolutionary War, and that valued education for both the sons and the daughters of the household. The children were educated at home with tales of their father’s service in the Continental Army, and with the classics and the Bible by their mother. When her next elder brother returned for short vacations during his time at Dartmouth, an eager Sarah would spend hours learning the lessons he had received at school.
By the time she was 18, Sarah had built such a significant reputation for her learning that she was able to open a private school in Newport, NH. There she carried on her family’s tradition and taught both boys and girls all the subjects. Her educational philosophy veered from the norm in her equal treatment of the sexes and her willingness for each student to progress at his or her own pace. She closed the school in 1813 when she married David Hale, a well-regarded attorney.
Family: In a time Sarah later described as a period of “unbroken happiness,” the newlyweds became the “it” couple of Newport. They had four children in seven years, and David’s law practice flourished. Recognizing in each other a shared love of knowledge, they purposely set aside two hours a night to study together. Sarah wrote, “How I enjoyed those hours! In this manner we studied French, Botany…and obtained some knowledge of Mineralogy, Geology, etc. beside pursuing a long and instructive course of readings.” They invited others to join them in a literary club and recognizing her talent for writing, David offered to critique her work and suggested she submit her work for publication.
Health: Five years into their marriage and pregnant with her third child, Sarah became terribly ill with what the doctors thought was incurable tuberculosis. Discouraged, she seemed to give up the fight. In her book Remarkable New Hampshire Women, Gail Underwood Parker writes that one night “David stopped reading aloud to Sarah, closed his book, and left the house. Some hours later he returned and announced he was not going to let Sarah die. The next morning he took their two boys to stay with Sarah’s brothers and set off with her. For six weeks they meandered through the countryside in an open carriage, stopping and eating at whim, enjoying the balmy fall weather, fresh air, and sunshine. Sarah particularly loved the grapes that grew wild along the road, and they would stop to gather and eat them at every opportunity. When they returned to Newport, Sarah had regained her health. For the rest of her life Sarah kept grapes on her table…”
Remarkably, not only did she recover, but she gave birth to three more healthy children, and became a very successful, nationally recognized businesswoman, not retiring until she was 89 years old.
Friends: As miraculous as the outcome was of Sarah’s brush with illness, David was not so lucky. In 1820 he became ill with pneumonia and died. Although his law practice was very successful, the family had saved very little money and Sarah was almost due to give birth to their fifth child. Seeing a need, David’s fellow Masons stepped forward and paid for the funeral and burial costs, and set Sarah and one of David’s sisters up in the millinery business in Newport. Knowing that at David’s suggestion, Sarah had been writing for publication, they also bankrolled her first book of poems The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems. It was received well enough that Sarah and her sister-in-law closed the hat shop, and Sarah pursued writing full-time, publishing the nation’s first anti-slavery novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England in 1827 to wide acclaim.
Interestingly, the novel was also the first to devote a whole chapter to Thanksgiving. According to Tori Avey’s blog, “Tori’s Kitchen,” she described a table most of us recognize today:
The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odour of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of baking. At the foot of the board a surloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and joint of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter… Two or three kinds of pies, all excellent, as many of cake, with pickles and preserves, custards and cheese, and cranberry sauce… furnished forth the feast.
A job: Northwood received wide acclaim and brought Sarah to the attention of the founder of “American Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette,” later bought out and renamed “Godey’s Lady’s Book.” In 1837, she was asked to become editor, and for 50 years she was its main writer and fulfilled its mission to publish only original work mainly by women and to improve society through its content. Its circulation grew from 10,000 to more than 150,000 before she retired at 89, and it was the first to publish favorable reviews of writers such as Harriet Beecher (Stowe), Frances Hodgson (Burnett) and Edgar Allen Poe.
In becoming the nation’s first “editress,” as she called herself, Sarah broke barriers and earned perks that many would envy today. When the magazine’s headquarters moved from Boston to Philadelphia, for instance, she was allowed to remain in Massachusetts for several years until her youngest son graduated from Harvard, and she was able to use the book’s pages to lobby for causes dear to her heart.
Leaving this world a better place: While some accounts mention her poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as her most notable accomplishment, Sarah was probably thinking of other successes when she said, “In truth, my life is a continuous thanksgiving.” In her lifetime, she became a leading authority on fashion, architecture, literature and the home. She helped found Troy Female Seminary, a school dedicated to training women educators; Vassar College, a top women’s college; and The Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, the nation’s first medical school for women. Her fundraising efforts led to the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument to soldiers of the Revolution, and the preservation of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. She rallied women across the nation to make dueling “unfashionable,” infant nutrition a priority, kindergarten common, playgrounds ubiquitous, and cleanliness an everyday practice. And she has successfully brought American citizens to a moment of corporate reflection on all their blessings once a year for nearly 200 years.
Sarah Josepha Hale’s was a “life of continuous thanksgiving” in deed.
Additional resources consulted for this story: biography.com; the Library of Congress (loc.gov); thoughtco.com; history.com; uvm.edu. Photos and documents are in the public domain.