Thanksgiving charity, 1921

People who could afford to go out for Thanksgiving dinner had lots of choices. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Special meals were the order of the day for Thanksgiving 1921 at local prisons, orphanages and homes for the poor, sick and aged. And disabled veterans got a bonus that weekend: an exclusive performance by poet Carl Sandburg.

A look at Thanksgiving festivities a century ago, however, shows how much the social service safety net, especially for children and the elderly, depended on a hodgepodge of churches and private charities. Government programs, which existed primarily at the county level, were a last resort.

Virtually all facilities put in extra efforts for Thanksgiving. But in 1921, newspaper reports suggest, holidays were a happy contrast to daily life in those institutions. The main consolation is that, for most of their residents, life outside must have been worse.

From the Illinois State Journal on Friday, Nov. 25, 1921:

Oranges and B’rer Rabbit kisses, toy balloons, music and games made merry for the little folks of the Home for the Friendless yesterday, so that Thanksgiving for them was a very cheery event.

A dinner with chicken and ice cream and hand made cookies was the feature of the day at noon, and forty little tots sat about the loaded table and enjoyed the dinner thoroughly. The bountiful dinner was largely contributed by generous Springfield people, who had a thought for homeless little ones in the midst of their own Thanksgiving pleasure.

(“B’rer Rabbit kisses” apparently were molasses-based taffy candies; B’rer Rabbit was a popular brand of molasses. The Home for the Friendless, Springfield’s oldest orphanage, housed about 40 children, all of them white, in 1921.)

The Journal also devoted a few paragraphs to Thanksgiving at three institutions for African American children.

A bountiful Thanksgiving dinner at noon, and a program of music, readings and stories in the afternoon was the observance of Thanksgiving day for the Lincoln Old Folks Colored home, the Mary A. Lawrence industrial school for colored girls, and the Lincoln industrial school for colored boys.

Religious services were held in the morning. The program in the afternoon was furnished by the boys and girls of the schools.

(Although known as the Lincoln Colored Old Folks and Orphans Home, the home housed 22 children and only three elderly women in fall 1921. That ratio was pretty consistent throughout the home’s existence.)

Among Springfield’s other homes for orphans and foundlings at the time:

  • The Springfield Redemption Home, which worked with unwed pregnant girls, had a “family” of about 90 on Thanksgiving 1921, including 40 infants and children who lived at the home. Besides a chicken dinner, the day revolved around church services in the morning, afternoon and evening.
  • At the Orphanage of the Holy Child, operated by the Springfield Episcopal Diocese, 14 children enjoyed a donated turkey dinner. “The afternoon and evening were spent in games and music,” the Journal said.
  • The Sangamon County Detention Home housed another dozen children in November 1921. A child could be committed to the detention home if a judge found that he or (less often) she was delinquent or dependent. While the newspapers didn’t mention it, the detention home almost surely laid on a special dinner on Thanksgiving 1921 – a month later, the home’s residents were the beneficiaries of Christmas gifts and parties provided by First Methodist Church, the Campfire Girls, Springfield High School’s alumni association and the Boston Store.
  • Also not mentioned in 1921 was Thanksgiving at John’s Sanitarium near Riverton. In 1922, however, that facility held a special Thanksgiving dinner, and, the Journal said, “the crippled kiddies and the tubercular children, as well as the other patients, will be provided with music and other good times.”

The King’s Daughters Home and St. Joseph’s Home, both of which housed elderly women, benefited from dinners provided by volunteer support groups: the King’s Daughters circles and St. Joseph’s Home coteries.

And, the Journal said, “the gloom of spending Thanksgiving day within prison walls was largely lessened” by chicken dinners in the city and county jails, which held 20 and 29 “boarders” respectively.

Meanwhile, the Springfield Woman’s Club had invited Carl Sandburg to Springfield to lecture at the YWCA the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 26, 1921. It was a coup for the club, since Sandburg was coming off two years in a row in which his poetry collections had won major literary awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1919.

Since Sandburg was a military veteran (he served in the Spanish-American War), the Woman’s Club also arranged for him also to do an evening appearance before disabled veterans at two associated rehabilitation and tuberculosis centers, the Open Air Colony at Lawrence Avenue and Chatham Road and the Homestead at Rutledge and Miller streets.

“Whether he lectures, recites his rhapsodic poems, or chants ballads and folk songs to the accompaniment of his guitar, he brings to his audience that sense of the wonder and beauty of life which only the young and poets feel,” the Illinois State Register said in announcing Sandburg’s Springfield appearance.

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