On the fourth Thursday in November, folks across Florida and the nation will observe the Thanksgiving holiday. For many people, Thanksgiving inspires nostalgia for turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, desserts, autumn colors and gearing up for the holidays. Yet, as many know, the Thanksgiving table can at times host disputes, such as whose football team is better or the various merits of sweet potato versus pumpkin pie. But, as revealed in Series S368, Governor Fred Cone Correspondence, Florida was part of a national dispute over which day to observe Thanksgiving in 1939 and 1940.
Before the 19th century, Thanksgiving was celebrated with regional variations. Local governments or organizations proclaimed days of thanksgiving at various points throughout the year. In 1789, George Washington issued a proclamation for a day of public thanksgiving to take place on Thursday, November 26. Many subsequent presidents and governors proclaimed days of thanksgiving but dates varied until the 1860s. In 1850, Florida Governor Thomas Brown proclaimed Thanksgiving as November 28, the last Thursday of the month.
Brown’s successor, Governor James E. Broome, changed the observed Thanksgiving date throughout his time in office. Broome selected the fourth Thursday in November in 1855. In 1856, citing a desire to be in unison with other states, Broome declared Thanksgiving on the third Thursday in November.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as national Thanksgiving Day. Over the next seven decades, presidents followed suit and the last Thursday in November became the traditional observation of the holiday. State governors also issued their own proclamations, but they usually lined up with the national observance. The Florida Legislature officially established Thanksgiving as a public holiday in 1905 (1905 Laws of Florida, Chapter 5392).
As is the case today, Thanksgiving in the early to mid-20th century was associated with Christmas shopping preparations. Retailers at the state and national level looked forward to a sales boost after Thanksgiving. In 1939, November’s last Thursday happened to be the last day of the month: November 30. Fearing a shortened holiday shopping season and still reeling from the Great Depression, retailers petitioned state and national governments to move Thanksgiving up a week, to November 23, to give an earlier boost to holiday sales (for more on Florida in the Great Depression, see our other photo exhibits, collections, and New Deal Research Guide).
President Franklin Roosevelt agreed with the change and indicated that he would issue his proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday in November: November 23, 1939 and November 21, 1940. On October 31, 1939, Roosevelt issued Proclamation 2373, officially setting the shifted holiday.
While many welcomed the move, others were not so easily swayed. Many did not wish to alter long-held traditions, with Florida Governor Fred P. Cone among them. When asked about his intentions regarding the state proclamation for Thanksgiving in 1939, Cone indicated that he would err on the side of tradition and set the date as November 30.
Cones’ traditional stance on Thanksgiving was welcomed by many throughout the state, as evidenced by these letters.
Twenty-two other states fell in line with Florida and observed Thanksgiving on November 30.
However, the shifted date was a source of consternation among several industries. Calendar manufacturers, for example, printed calendars two years out, making both the 1939 and 1940 calendars obsolete. The following exchange between the Stanwood-Hillson Corporation, a printing company, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt illustrates tensions over the Thanksgiving date change.
Other industries were also affected by the change of date. The editors of Turkey World Magazine, noting “confusion in the turkey industry,” wrote to the governor asking for clarification so the magazine could properly inform their readers.
The National Council for Teachers of English noted that their annual conference was customarily held on the weekend after Thanksgiving. When New York, one of the states in favor of an early Thanksgiving, hosted the 1939 conference, the council wrote to Governor Cone asking that he encourage local school boards to allow English teachers leave time on November 23 and 24 in order to attend the conference.
The Florida Bankers Association decided to observe both November 23 and November 30 as holidays to minimize confusion among their employees.
Florida Attorney General George Couper Gibbs also sought clarification. Under the attorney general’s reading of the law, Governor Cone’s intention on the traditional observance presented ambiguities.
By proclamation, however, Governor Cone insisted on the traditional date as the state’s official observance. In the end, many towns followed the Florida Bankers Association in observing both days as holidays.
During the following year, the same controversy gripped Florida. Residents tried to plan accordingly to avoid the confusion from 1939. In January 1940, representatives from high schools across Florida contacted Governor Cone asking him for clarification for the date of Thanksgiving so they could properly schedule their traditional football rivalry games for the appropriate weekend. Florida and 15 other states once again broke with the federal date and held Thanksgiving on the traditional day, the last Thursday in November.
The controversy surrounding Thanksgiving’s date continued even into 1941. President Roosevelt finally admitted that the changes were not worth the hassle or confusion. The earlier date alienated many Americans, and they refused to go shopping until after they observed the traditional holiday. So, on October 6, through U.S. House Joint Resolution (HJR) 41, Congress attempted to set the date for future Thanksgiving observances as the last Thursday in November. Then, on December 9, the Senate amended HJR 41 to account for November months with five Thursdays by setting the fourth Thursday in the month as Thanksgiving Day. Every Thanksgiving since 1942 has been celebrated on this day.
No matter your Thanksgiving plans, the State Archives wishes you an enjoyable holiday!