I hope everyone got enough to eat yesterday and refrained from waking up at 4:00 this morning for Black Friday. In a sense we have Franklin Roosevelt to thank/blame for turning the day after Thanksgiving into the retail orgy it has become. Since 1863, when Lincoln asked Americans to pause and give thanks for what they had during the difficult days of the Civil War, the country always marked Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. Decades later, in the waning days of the Depression, leaders of the Retail Dry Goods Association convinced President Roosevelt that because Thanksgiving fell on November 30 the late date would dent their Christmas sales. And so in August of that year FDR announced that Thanksgiving would fall a week earlier, on the fourth Thursday of the month, November 23.

The cover of the menu for the Marines Thanksgiving dinner, Pearl Harbor 1939. It is unclear if the Marines marked the earlier or later date, though an educated guess would say the earlier being that the directive had come from their commander-in-chief, President Roosevelt. Note that it says Territory of Hawaii. The islands would not achieve statehood.

The cover of the menu for the Marines Thanksgiving dinner, Pearl Harbor 1939. It is unclear if the Marines marked the earlier or later date, though an educated guess would say the earlier being that the directive had come from their commander-in-chief, President Roosevelt. Just over two years later the Japanese would attack the base, launching the United States into World War II.

Thanksgiving at this time was yet a legal holiday; state governors had the option of setting the date themselves, though by tradition they had usually rubber-stamped what presidents since Lincoln had done. That was not to be in 1939. Roughly half the state governors chose November 23, with the other half opting for the traditional. So the United State had two Thanksgiving that year, and again in 1940 and 1941 as well. Tellingly the most resistance came from New England, especially Massachusetts, where the holiday had originated in 1621. Bay Staters did not see the humor in messing with the traditional date. Roosevelt’s detractors called the president’s proclamation “Franksgiving.” The financial benefits of the earlier date were ambiguous, perhaps because of the confusion with the mulitple. The experiment came to an end three years later; facing so much backlash and resistance, FDR called off the dual celebrations. In a larger sense he–and the retailers–got their way however. Thanksgiving was permanently and legally moved to the fourth Thursday of the November, adding a few extra days to the holiday shopping season.

(image/USMC Archives from Quantico, USA, via Wikimedia Commons)


Happy Thanksgiving

St. Patrick's Church, Washington D.C. 26 November 1914: the mood was somber the first Thanksgiving of the Great War

St. Patrick’s Church, Washington D.C., 26 November 1914: the mood was somber the first Thanksgiving of the Great War

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I thought I would share these photographs from the Pan American Mass held at Washington D.C.’s St. Patrick’s Church in 1914. St. Patrick’s Monsignor William T. Russell conceived the idea of a Pan American Mass after hearing President Taft’s Thanksgiving proclamation in mid November. The monsignor pitched the idea to his boss Cardinal Gibbon who signed off on the idea. The Pan American concept goes back to the Pan Am Expo held in Buffalo nearly a decade earlier. That is of course where McKinley was killed and Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in 1901. William Howard Taft attended all four Thanksgiving Pan American Masses during his presidency.

Though undefined in the crowd, William Jennings Bryan was in attendance that Thanksgiving Day. His attendance assuaged concerns of Protestant exclusion and signaled America's determined neutrality in the escalating war.

Though undefined in the crowd, William Jennings Bryan was in attendance that Thanksgiving Day. His attendance at the Pan American Mass assuaged concerns of Protestant exclusion and signaled America’s determined neutrality in the escalating war.

Woodrow Wilson was there in 1913 but conspicuously absent in 1914. It seems there was a messy public dispute after the 1913 Thanksgiving mass when Protestants complained about what they saw as the mass’s exclusion. Wilson was at his retreat house in Williamsport, Massachusetts with his daughter, the two quietly celebrating Thanksgiving while mourning the death of his wife and her mother Ellen. Mrs. Wilson had hied the first of August during what turned out to be the first week of the Great War. Three months later peace was the topic of the day in St. Patrick’s. The president’s personal aide, Joe Tumulty, and his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, represented his that Thanksgiving day. Tumulty and Bryan were wise if subtle choices; Tumulty was a practicing Catholic and Bryan a devout Protestant pacifist. With war in Europe entering its fourth month Bryan’s attendance signaled to both domestic and foreign audiences that the United States was determined to stay out of it.

St. Patrick’s marked the Pan American Thanksgiving Mass well into the 1950s, with presidents, ambassadors and Supreme Court justices usually in attendance.

(images/Library of Congress)

Hemingway’s Paris today

Hemingway in Paris, 1924: less than a decade removed from his time as a WW1 ambulance driver.

Hemingway in Paris, circa 1924: less than a decade removed from his years as a WW1 ambulance driver and during the time he was writing the notebooks that became A Moveable Feast

An interesting thing has been taking place in France this week: Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast has been making its way up the best-seller list in the wake of last week’s ISIS attacks. Hemingway’s widow published AMF in 1964 three years after the writer’s death. It is a collection of vignettes Hemingway wrote in notebook form while living in Paris in the 1920s as a member of the Lost Generation. He tinkered with the manuscript in the 1950s and prepared what was essentially the final draft before his suicide. Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound are just a few of Hemingway’s protagonists. Though I’m sure it was coincidence the book was published fifty after the onset of the First World War, which was fitting being that the events of 1914-18 were what set the stage for the anxieties and opportunities of 1920s Paris.

Hemingway in many respects was a stereotypical artist. The multiple divorces, the alcoholism, the posing and sheer blowhardedness, the chaotic personal life and, eventually, the suicide. It was all so messy; yet when it was time to put pen to paper he could bring it like nobody’s business, and all in such a straightforward, no bullshit style. It is no wonder people are tuning to Hemingway and his Paris memoir again at this anxious time, 50+ years after its original release.

(image/Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)



Crossing the Mersey

Liverpool (above) was one of Europe's many port cities from which Europeans flocked to the United States prior to the First World War.

Liverpool (above) was one of Europe’s many port cities from which Europeans flocked to the United States prior to the First World War.

I noted with interest today that the city of Liverpool is to build its own immigration museum. This will not be the first museum in Europe dedicated to the mass exodus from the Old World to the New. Antwerp for one has its Red Star Line Museum, which opened in 2013. In my time volunteering at Ellis Island I always stressed that immigration to the U.S. at the turn of the last century was not a one way street and that the human drama was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic as much as it was at Ellis Island, Baltimore, Charleston, and the other port cities of the United States. Anything less is just half the story.

The Liverpool immigration museum seems to be part of city’s larger strategy to emphasize its cultural heritage. Most famously city leaders plug The Beatles and Mersey’s importance to the band’s sound and rise. And why shouldn’t the city do that?; the rough and tumble town was integral to who the group was. Hamburg, itself another port city instrumental to the Beatles development, opened its own immigration museum, the BallinStadt, in 2007. European immigration to the United States crested a hundred years earlier, 1907, but held steady until the onset of the Great War seven years later, when the sea routes were disrupted and Atlantic travel dropped off precipitately.

(image by G-Man via Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday morning coffee

I spoke to my brother in France yesterday. He seemed to be holding as well as can be expected in these circumstances. He is a little worried about crossing the border tomorrow, which he has to do sometimes for work. I guess we’ll see what happens. It is important in times of crisis such as now to remember the long ties between France and America, starting with French and American Revolutions, through the world wars, and even in recent years despite strains in the long relationship. One of the most significant moments in Franco-American relations came on July 4, 1917 when men of the 16th Infantry marched to Picpus Cemetery to pay their respects to Lafayette. I thought a little Sinatra on a Sunday morning would make everyone’s day a little brighter. If i’m not mistaken the video comes from the opening of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Enjoy your Sunday.


Armistice Day 1935

President Roosevelt speaking at Arlington Cemetery, Armistice Day 1935

President Roosevelt speaking at Arlington National Cemetery, Armistice Day 1935

Today is Veterans Day and I am curious to see if anyone mentions it to me over the course of the day. Eighty years ago today Franklin Roosevelt spoke at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a tense time in international relations. Hitler was consolidating his power in Europe and Mussolini’s Army was making its way through Ethiopia. The president’s speech was restrained but hopeful nonetheless that peace could still flourish. It was an interesting moment in many ways. For one thing Armistice Day was not yet a national holiday. FDR’s New York had established November 11 as a legal holiday only the year before, joining nearly thirty other states that had done so previously. Since the Armistice itself presidents had issued proclamations asking the nation to observe the anniversary.

The American Legion had invited Roosevelt to speak a few weeks previously. FDR’s estranged cousin Ted had been one of the founders of the Legion. The Legion was also a supporter of the Bonus Army, who made it clear to President Roosevelt that they were not giving in on their demands for payment of the long-ago-promised stipend. Roosevelt tied to emphasize the positive in his Armistice Day speech, announcing a trade agreement between the United States and Canada that had just been negotiated, as if to show how international cooperation could still work if applied. He emphasized America’s need for preparedness as well, which was a not-so-subtle dig at Wilson’s response to the outbreak of fighting twenty years earlier. He would do the best he could to avoid the same fate during his own administration, through Lend-Lease and other measures, but with mixed results.

One of the most poignant things in the photograph above are the support rails that were presumably built especially for the president’s use. Because of the polio he could only stand for brief periods of time. Usually in photos where Roosevelt is standing there are men standing on either side of him to provide support. Obviously that was not possible for such a solemn occasion as this, and so the rails were there just in case. After this event Roosevelt traveled to Hyde Park for a period and then on to Warm Springs, Georgia where he would spend Thanksgiving.

(image/Library of Congress, permalink:

Visiting the Grover Cleveland Birthplace

The Grover Cleveland Birthplace is today managed by the State of New Jersey.

The Grover Cleveland Birthplace is today managed by the State of New Jersey.

Yesterday a friend and I ventured out to Caldwell, New Jersey to visit the Grover Cleveland Birthplace. We were spurred on by a recent New York Times article extolling the virtues of seeing the presidential sites of our more forgotten leaders. It proved surprisingly easy to do; the trip entailed little more than an hour’s bus ride from the Port Authority. As I wrote about a few months back, Grover Cleveland was a good friend of James Roosevelt, FDR’s father. The 22nd and 24th president was born in Caldwell in 1837 and lived there for four years until the family relocated to the Empire State in the early 1840s. Cleveland’s father was a minister and served in numerous churches in Upstate New York, which was expanding in these years just after the completion of the Erie Canal.

The beautiful Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland Preston as she was around the time of the start of the First World War

The beautiful Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland Preston as she was around the time of the start of the First World War

Cleveland married the 21-year-old Frances Clara Folsom in the White House on July 2, 1886. The couple went on to have five kids. The media was not yet as intense as it would be during the Theodore Roosevelt Administration but the Cleveland kids, especially little Baby Ruth, captured the country’s imagination. Cleveland died in 1908 and the home in Caldwell opened as a historic site in 1913. That same year Frances–still just in her mid-40s–remarried. She and her husband were living in London when the Great War broke out a year later. The newlyweds returned to the United States. Frances was active in the Allied cause throughout the Great War, and indeed was involved in most of the issues of the period. She worked with Theodore Roosevelt on a Liberty Bond drive and became active in the Needlework Guild. Frances also opposed the vote for women, to the extent that she became president of the Princeton branch of the New Jersey Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. She was vice-president of the state organization as well.

In February 1918 she signed her name to a petition urging the Wilson Administration to ban the production of beer and malt liquor. This initiative had the back of some 6,000,000 signatures. Their main argument was that cutting production of beers and malts would save precious grain for the war effort. There was merit to the argument. That same week representatives from the baking industry were meeting with the Federal Food Board. Herbert Hoover had recently authorized the twelve-ounce loaf, as opposed to the standard sixteen-ounce loaf, in response to the shortage of foodstuffs. The grain petition, as everyone knew, was also part of the wider strategy of the Temperance Movement. Indeed the initiative had the support of the WCTU, with whom Frances had a complicated relationship over the decades.

We tend to think of this stuff as ancient history and yet Frances Cleveland Preston lived until 1947. As my friend and I noted when talking to our tour guide yesterday, Frances and Grover Cleveland’s youngest child, died on 8 November 1995, twenty years ago today.

(bottom image/Library of Congress, permalink:

The smell of victory in the evening

IMG_2766I got home tonight and there in the vestibule was the author’s copy of The Wonder of It All sent to me by editors at the Yosemite Conservancy. There is nothing quite like seeing your name in print. The official release date is March 15, 2016, but the Conservancy has it exclusively until then. I did not know that Shelton Johnson had written something for the collection. Longtime readers may recall that I interviewed Ranger Johnson two years ago. It’s kinda cool to now be associated with him on a project such as this one for the 100th anniversary of the Park Service. I’m looking forward to reading his and the others’ contributions.

Juilliard’s military tradition

My good friend Molly Skardon, who is the driving force behind the Oral History Project at Governors Island National Monument, has published a piece about military musicians in this month’s edition of the Julliard Journal. I encourage you to check it out. When we think of music and the Great War we inevitably and properly think of James Reese Europe and his jazz men. That is just part of the story, however. Many of the A.E.F. bands have their roots in a program started just before the outbreak of the conflict. Music has always been important to the military. At Governors Island military bands trace their roots as far back as the 1830s. John Philip Sousa led the U.S. Marine Band for years before striking out on his own. It’s difficult for people in the twenty-first century to grasp the cultural impact he still has today. Molly informs us that the Army’s musical tradition began a new chapter in 1911 when the Institute of Musical Art–the institution that became Juilliard–founded the Military Band Department. Some of America’s greatest musicians have learned their art in this musical laboratory.

When the First Army was stationed on Governors Island its band was responsible for performances of all kinds–funerals, parades, state visits, and whatever else the brass came up with. Molly and I, with others, have interviewed some of these people as part of the OHP. Some of these guys are still active as well. We saw one of them play in Greenwich Village a few months back. We never had the good fortune of seeing Michael Rose play, but we did interview him over the summer. Up top is a video of him and his band which he posted just yesterday. Mr. Rose got his start playing as a young trumpeter stationed on Governors Island in the 1950s. He went on to play with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, and many others.

Remember that next week is Veterans Day. Here is a slightly different link to Molly’s article, with related links to other stories about Juilliard’s relationship with the military. And by the way if you are a veteran of Governors Island’s First Army Band, or were stationed there in any capacity, please contact me about setting up an oral history interview.

The Rough Riders in 54mm

IMG_2751One thing I love about going to toy soldier shows, especially the big one every November in Hackensack–is that one is pretty much guaranteed to see something that a) one never thought one would see, and b) one never knew existed in the first place. That happened again many time today, not least when I saw this Rough Rider playset. No I did not buy it, but I did make sure to take the above photo. A quick internet search informs us that the set comes with 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, the 71st New York, and individual poses of both John Pershing and Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. I have no idea why this set is not better known. The cover art was even done by banality maestro Mort Kunstler. Now you know that I’m not much for the painter’s work; he did do a beautiful job here nonetheless. I believe this set is from the late 60s or early 70s. The already impressive set already contains over 100 pieces; coupled with a few more troopers this would make quite the living room battle scene.

It’s interesting how the Spanish-American War was something of a laboratory for the U.S. Army a decade and a half prior to the outbreak of the Great War. It is roughly parallel to what the Mexican-American War did for the Officers Corps that fought the War of the Rebellion. The Boer War was much the same for the Brits. In every case, though, even more lessons could and should have been learned.

Speaking of the Great War, I met a few people who, if things fall into place, with whom I ay get to collaborate on a few small things. Time will tell.



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