Another Sarah – The Woman Who Helped Create Thanksgiving


Before Sarah Palin, there was Sarah Hale, who spent 40 years and wrote thousands of letters to make Thanksgiving a national holiday

I know many of us are convinced that only today could a woman over 40 reinvent herself and become a big nationwide success. But it isn’t so. And since it is Thanksgiving week I want to tell you about a forgotten but extraordinary Victorian woman named Sarah Hale.

Born in 1788, she was left a widow at 34. Penniless, she had five children to raise and so she supported them by sewing and writing poetry. At 39 she wrote a novel called Norwood, the first novel about slavery that was a big bestseller. She then became the editor of the Ladies’ Magazine in Boston and wrote successful collections of poetry, called Poems for Our Children, which included the poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”

Some S.I. Newhouse of the day lured her to Philadelphia to a bigger and better job on a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book which was the largest and  most successful publication in its day. It may be the fashion to sneer at women’s magazines and women magazine editors these days but Sarah at that time, through her publication’s pages, became the most influential woman in America. She was the first to advocate equal education for girls, start day nurseries for working women and suggest public playgrounds. She also supported American women writers and published them in her magazine. And the S.I. Newhouse of the day supported her. She remained the editor until she was 90.

Pretty impressive, right? But what she is remembered for, when she is remembered, is her promoting Thanksgiving as a national holiday. It was her idea. She wrote, “We have too few holidays. Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, should be a national festival and observed by all people.” She thought such a holiday would have a positive effect on our country. She wrote, “There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out … the best sympathies in our natures.”

As the nation hurtled toward the Civil War, she felt such a holiday was especially important. In 1863, in the darkest year of the conflict, Lincoln did issue the proclamation that established Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Sarah had spent 40 years and written thousands of letters to achieve this goal. It is interesting in these troubled times to read Lincoln’s proclamation ( In, perhaps, our country’s darkest hour he still wrote of the blessings and the bounty of America.

Yes, the middle-aged Sarah Hale — tough, smart, determined — was quite a woman. Maybe she proves that women today are not different than American women in the past.  But, rather, we are lucky to be their descendants.

Editor’s Note: Anyone who has read a women’s magazine in the last 25 years has most likely read the work of Myrna Blyth. Myrna is the founding editor of More magazine, was the longtime editor-in-chief of Ladies’ Home Journal, and was senior editor for Family Circle magazine. She is the chairman of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. She has received many awards including the Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications, Inc., the Woman of Achievement Award from the New York City Commission on the Status of Women, and was named Publishing Executive of the Year by Advertising Age. Currently she writes for The National Review Online.

7 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Bonnie O says:

    I liked this article very much. Thank you Myrna Blyth. And I wish everyone here a Happy Thanksgiving.
    By the way, the gown worn by Sarah Hale is similar to the black velvet material we high school senior girls used to drape over our shoulders for our class photographs taken at Macy’s. All these years later, I am pleased that when we look back at our senior pics, they still look very classic and chic.

    • avatar kermie says:

      Bonnie O–It is so funny you should say that! My high school used those drapes in senior pictures also. That takes me back.

  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    There are so many stories about the “first” Thanksgiving at this point but in all the stories there is only one theme which is a theme we seem to forget and seemed to have forgotten not long after that “first” Thanksgiving which was and is the theme of friendship. The old welcoming the new. With trepidation perhaps. The new welcoming the old. With trepidation perhaps. But there they were. The strange people from the Old World encountering the strange people in the New World. And so it began. This magnificent country. A new country which in many ways began a new world. Which began with friendship. And a shared meal. Something all of us should remember today.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      Thanksgiving is over so I must add that the reality was probably different from the stories. According to some who’ve studied the historical records as opposed to reading the stories the Pilgrims landed and found themselves confronted by Indians. The Indians asked “Who are you?” The Pilgrims asked “Who are you?” The Indians pulled out the bows and arrows. The Pilgrims pulled out the muskets. The turkey survived. No one else did. Fortunately there were others on the Mayflower. And other Indians in the woods. Maybe they had Thanksgiving. In which case in the end the turkey didn’t survive.

      Me, I like the stories better. The theme. Everyone getting along together. And then of course I feel bad about the turkey.

      It was and is nice to have a story about a Sarah other than Sarah Palin. Thank you Myrna.

  3. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Of course it took a woman to bring about Thanksgiving as a holiday. We understand it is less about the food (mostly prepared by women) and more about remembering that we are blessed to help ourselves. Sarah Hale showed women of her day that she could overcome adverse circumstances.
    I spent today at the Veterans Home and took my father-in-law to a Cracker Barrel restaurant at his request so he could eat catfish. At 90 I feel he is entitled to celebrate with the food of his choice.

  4. avatar Frau Quink says:

    Wonderful story. Thank you!

  5. Another Sarah – The Woman Who Helped Create Thanksgiving – wowowow…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……