When the pilgrims landed in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1620, there was no voice of Siri to say, “Arrived.” The only parade that November was one of tired, hungry pioneers disembarking a ship. They weren’t dodging cars in the grocery store parking lot, but arrows shot by unfriendly natives and disease that ripped through the settlement as the weather grew cold and harsh.
Forget fighting over the last pre-made pie crust at Stop & Shop. Those early American settlers were just lucky if they didn’t starve or freeze as their first New England winter settled in around them.
Fast forward 400 years, and, naturally, things have changed. But the ability to Instagram that beautiful, plump, golden turkey on that beautiful, rustic, candlelit table spread isn’t the only change that time and progress have wrought upon Thanksgiving. Here’s how innovation, marketing and technology have shaped this iconic American holiday over the years.
Making It a Holiday at All
National Geographic says that the first Thanksgiving was not a thanksgiving at all, but simply a celebration of the pilgrims’ first successful harvest. In fact, back then, the word “thanksgiving” referred to a period of prayerful fasting — quite the opposite of the indulgence we now associate with the holiday. But when a 17th-century pilgrim used the phrase “first Thanksgiving” in a letter, the name stuck.
The settlers feasted for three days straight with the Wampanoag tribe that helped them learn how to bring forth bounty from the rocky New England soil. It was not until the Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.
What made it stick was (if we may retrofit a modern term) the right marketing. The holiday was kept separate from any religious tradition or observance. From the beginning, the vision was to include all people and traditions.
In 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, wrote that such a holiday would unify the nation — and indeed, noted Iowa State University Associate Professor of Marketing Samantha N. N. Cross, it has done so in a way that religious holidays have not achieved.
From there, said Cross, marketers shaped the rituals and myths surrounding the holiday and maintained them through the years. Traditions like making turkey the centerpiece of the meal, topping it with cranberry sauce, giving thanks before digging in and finishing it all off with a pumpkin pie — those traditions began as marketing strategies to sell turkeys, cranberries, pies and (to some extent) religion.
The holiday was initially celebrated on the final Thursday of the month, but in 1939, the date was officially moved to the fourth Thursday to extend the holiday shopping season by a week. (If only they could see us now — Gray November, anyone?)
What would Thanksgiving be like without the Macy’s Day Parade? This iconic event first appeared on television in 1939, when it aired locally in New York City as an experimental broadcast.
After a wartime suspension of the parade, the event resumed in 1945, and so did local broadcasts. Network television appearances began in 1948.
Early telecasts abbreviated the three-hour parade to fit in a one- or two-hour window, but by the end of the 1960s, networks were broadcasting the event in its entirety — and in color, starting in 1960.
The Macy’s Day Parade has the most brand name recognition, but there are countless other parades across the U.S. on or around Thanksgiving, and as the years went on, networks began to cover more and more of them, even including taped footage from the Toronto Santa Claus Parade and the Aloha Floral Parade in Honolulu, which takes place much earlier in the season.
As much as the parades delight viewers, there is another purpose that should be fairly obvious, and that is, once again, marketing. In addition to fierce marketing by Macy’s and the television networks, popular cartoon franchises and performers use the opportunity to draw eyes, ears and dollars to their brands.
While we’re talking about TV, we would be remiss not to mention Thanksgiving Day football (a tradition that began in 1920 but was not televised until the 1950s, and not in color until 1965) and everyone’s favorite Charlie Brown special, which first aired in 1973.
With so many things to watch, it’s a good thing DVR was invented.
Before there was Instagram, there was the instant camera that looked just like the original Instagram mobile app icon. Before that, there was 35-millimeter film. And before that, there was the 100-exposure box camera, the first camera to be used by people who were not either professionals or very rich.
The box camera had to be sent back to the factory for film processing, and the film was larger than the 35-millimeter grade that would replace it in the 1940s, as photography became more affordable on a mainstream level.
Certainly people were able to have family portraits done earlier than that, but once Kodak hit the market, photography fell into the hands of the average person, enabling them to choose, record and cherish their most prized memories in a way that was not previously possible.
Photos got clearer, developed faster and added color over the years, eventually migrating from analog to digital around the turn of the 21st century. It’s kind of funny looking back on those dark, blurry digital photos today, when every single one of us is walking around with a camera that would have been top of the line in the early aughts shoved casually in our back pockets.
And what do we do with this incredible technology? Add cartoon chef hats and turkey stickers to photos we take of ourselves, which are specifically designed to be destroyed. So much for cherished memories.
Putting the turkey in the oven at 7:00 a.m. is just part of the ritual now. However, it’s a relatively new routine. Early Thanksgiving celebrants may have cooked their turkeys in beehive-shaped brick ovens, according to Smithsonian Magazine. These ovens were heated by burning wood to ash and then sticking one’s hand inside to see if it felt hot enough yet.
Cast iron stoves hit the scene in the 18th century and gas stoves in the 19th. Electric stoves as we know them today were technically a thing by the beginning of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that electrical service was robust enough to support their use in the average home.
The microwave was invented in 1946 but did not gain popularity until at least the later 1970s. It may not be possible to fit an entire turkey in there, but several blog posts have circulated in recent years describing how to prepare a Thanksgiving feast using only a microwave.
For those who are not so adventurous, the microwave still plays a very important role in Thanksgiving: reheating leftovers. Microwave, you’re the real MVP.
Smart Devices and Gadgets
There are too many to name them all, so here are just a few of the ways people are using their smartphones, tablets and other techy doo-dads to make Thanksgiving a little easier, or at least more enjoyable.
Social platforms like Pinterest can inspire new culinary adventures for the holidays (or trigger a massive case of #FOMO for the majority of people who are not professional food artists).
Smart fridges give one-day chefs access to recipes and shopping lists as they work. Cooking and meal-planning apps can help manage all the different projects going on at once.
Forget something? Amazon and Allrecipes recently teamed up to deliver last-minute ingredients in under an hour. All users have to do is tap the ingredient within the recipe and pay through their Amazon account.
Be sure to have Siri or Alexa set a timer for the turkey. Setting a timer is still one of the top voice commands issued to digital assistants. Or just forget the whole “cooking” thing and order the meal from Amazon — uh, Whole Foods, that is.
Bake or buy, chefs and diners alike will want to Instagram the meal before digging in (and remember to hashtag #thankful). Smile for your kid’s Snapchat Story.
After dinner, celebrants may use Skype or FaceTime to connect with faraway relatives who couldn’t join them for the holiday this year.
Better hope the food coma kicks in soon, though, because grandma’s been saying she needs help setting up Facebook, and you already played tech support last year.
Finally, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to assemble your Black Friday game plan. Who has the best deals? When do you have to be there? Would it be better just to order gifts from Amazon this year? All valid questions that only you can answer.
To those who are about to buy, we salute you.