Here’s another holiday fun fact for you: American Thanksgiving hasn’t always been celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Up until the Civil War, each state observed the holiday on a different day, and even in a different month, each year. In 1863 President Lincoln issued a Proclamation that established Thanksgiving celebrations on the last Thursday in November. To allow for an extended Christmas shopping season, FDR moved the holiday to the penultimate Thursday of the month during the Depression, and then Congress moved it back to the fourth Thursday (which sometimes falls on the last Thursday, sometimes on the second-to-last) in 1941, establishing the schedule we continue to follow today.
As we all know, Thanksgiving is a time for, well, giving thanks. In 1836, Rochesterians—who celebrated the holiday on Thursday, December 15, that year—felt that they had much for which to be thankful. In a sermon delivered at the First Presbyterian Church on Fitzhugh Street near the Erie Canal (now Broad Street), Pastor Tryon Edwards enumerated the city’s “Reasons for Thankfulness.” Here are some highlights from that address:
- Rochester, which was America’s first boomtown as a result of the business and traffic generated by the Erie Canal, was “the fourth, if not the third city in the ‘Empire State.’” Its size had grown to 4,200 square acres (today its size, according to census.gov, is approximately 35.78 square miles, or 22,899.2 acres) and its population reached over 17,000 (today’s population is about 210,532).
- Rochester’s custom house and post office—“a good test, both of [the city’s] literary taste, and commercial prosperity”—were financially sound, and its canal revenue was “larger than that of any place west of the Hudson.”
- The city had hotels “of the largest class.”
- It offered an impressive literary culture, including a variety of newspapers, an Athenaeum (literary society) with its own library and reading room, a Library Association, and an Academy of Sacred Music.
- The city was well-educated, with 2 female seminaries, 3 schools for orphans, a public high school—“the largest in the state”—for both boys and girls, a school for African Americans, 18 private schools, and 20 Sabbath schools.
- There were 20 religious societies, “16 of which have permanent houses of worship…that cover 60,106 square feet, or nearly 1½ square acres.” In addition to their regular spiritual and charitable work, these establishments, according to Edwards, gave rise to “the first organized Temperance effort in Ireland,” and the “noble plan of supplying the whole United States with the Bible.”
- The city’s massive supply of water power ran its 20 flour mills, which, manufacturing 25,000 bushel of wheat daily, had “already rendered Rochester celebrated as the greatest flour manufactory in the world.”
- There were also 12 insurance companies, 4 banks, 9 daily stage coach lines, and 11 miles of sidewalk.
Gratified by these accomplishments and more, Edwards concluded, “No place in our country is so distinguished as Rochester, for its revivals of religion—for the comparative number and size of its churches, or the elegance of their edifices; and but few can compare with it in sound morality and intelligence, in social order, in enlightened enterprize [sic], and in stable, permanent prosperity.” Asserting that Rochester was “the ornament and the pride of our state,” Edwards wondered how anyone living here could help but be thankful to call it home.
While it is true that our fair city cannot presently claim the impressive degree of growth that characterized America’s first boomtown in the early decades of the Erie Canal, and though we face a number of problems that we, collectively, must resolve, Rochester still offers much to appreciate, including institutional treasures like our Central Library and its Local History and Genealogy Division! Although the Division (and indeed, the entire Library) will be closed for Thanksgiving on this year’s fourth—and final—Thursday of November, we invite you to stop by and visit us after the holiday to explore our trove and discover more of these stories from the past for yourself!
~ Michelle Finn, Deputy City Historian
Edwards, Tryon. Reasons for Thankfulness: A Discourse Delivered in the First Presbyterian Church in Rochester, N.Y. on the Day of Annual Thanksgiving, December 15, 1836. Rochester, NY: Humphrey, Cook & Tinkham, 1837.