Monthly Archives: November 2014

Thanksgiving 1864

In November 1864, the Confederacy was on life support. Its leaders had held on in the early years of the conflict, hoping for recognition from Great Britain or France. They then held on in the hope that Lincoln would be supplanted by a President who would allow the South to leave the Union in peace. This last hope was dashed when Lincoln won reelection earlier in the month. Now Southern leaders were merely “holding on.”

In 1864, the Union League decided to raise a fund to supply Thanksgiving dinner on November 24, 1864 for the Union soldiers and sailors fighting in the East. The reaction of the Northern public to this plan was overwhelming. Over $56,000 in cash was raised, an enormous sum at the time and 250,000 pounds of fowl.

In 1864, the Union League decided to raise a fund to supply Thanksgiving dinner on November 24, 1864 for the Union soldiers and sailors fighting in the East. The reaction of the Northern public to this plan was overwhelming. Over $56,000 in cash was raised, an enormous sum at the time and 250,000 pounds of fowl. (Source: almostchosenpeople.wordpress.com)

Meanwhile, the soldiers, North and South, did the fighting and the dying. The Southern lines at Petersburg (and on every other front) stretched thin and the rations fell to near-starvation levels. The Northern lines grew stronger and the soldiers enjoyed bountiful rations when they were not dodging bullets or cannon fire. My maternal ancestors include soldiers who served in the Army of Northern Virginia, and most likely were among those men who struggled for life on the Petersburg line. But survive they did, due to the randomness of war which allows me to write this piece today.

Thirteen months earlier, President Lincoln had issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving. In 1864, the Union League of New York was determined to do something special for the Northern soldiers. My paternal ancestors likely benefitted from the League’s efforts, which produced hundreds of thousands of pounds of food of every variety (turkey, ham, pies) and $56,000 in cash (equivalent to $1.7 million in 2014). The League’s officers included Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the future President.

The trenches at Petersburg Battlefield (Source: That National Archives and Records Administration)

The trenches at Petersburg Battlefield (Source: That National Archives and Records Administration)

On this Thanksgiving Day, as we sit around enjoying one another’s company, overstuff ourselves with nature’s bounty, and finish off the day with three professional football games, all of us should set aside a few minutes to think about how the random nature of events allows us to enjoy the holiday with family and friends. You may look to any of a panoply of events – war, disease, or other catastrophes. I can look to both sides of the Petersburg line. Happy Thanksgiving!

For more detailed articles about Thanksgiving, 1864, see:

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A Long, Cool Drink

Several years ago, I was on the hunt for water bottles that would keep ice water cold for long periods of time. My search carried me to a local hiking/biking/climbing store. When I told a store clerk about my dilemma, he told me that the body better absorbs the benefits of the water if the water temperature approximates that of the human body. My jaw dropped to the floor. While he may have been right, the last thing I want during a hike is 98.6-degree water. I think most people would side with me on the question.

Ice harvesters use a horse-drawn device to mark ice for cutting in Pennsylvania in 1907. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.com)

Ice harvesters use a horse-drawn device to mark ice for cutting in Pennsylvania in 1907. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.com)

Our ancestors were no different. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans enjoyed ice-cold beverages whenever they could get their hands on ice. Yes, I’m talking about the wealthy and powerful ancient ones.

Fast forward to 1850 America, and ice had become the United States’ second leading export, thanks in large part to the “Ice King,” Frederic Tudor of Massachusetts. The wealthy had had access to ice long before Tudor arrived on the scene. Initially, in 1806, he focused on making deliveries to the Caribbean. He continued to export ice around the world, but by 1830, he devised the infrastructure within the eastern United States to make ice available to people of modest means.

In the East, the ice was harvested in New York and New England. In the West, Californians got their ice exclusively from Alaska until the Central Pacific Railroad crossed the Sierra Nevada and added the mountain lakes as another resource.

Tudor established ice houses, which served as supply houses (analogize to gasoline tank farms that fuel gasoline delivery trucks). By the late 1800’s, many ice houses were warehouse-size.

Ice harvesters break off chunks of ice in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.org)

Ice harvesters break off chunks of ice in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.org)

The “ice man” drove his wagon to an ice house and loaded the ice for distribution in 25-100 pound blocks to his customers. The ice man chipped the ice to fit his customers’ ice boxes. Ice was used for many purposes other than cooling beverages and as an essential ingredient in ice cream. It also was used to preserve certain foods and medicines.

Ice was exported abroad, sometimes used as ballast in the ships making the deliveries. Saw dust was often used to insulate the ice, both on ships and in the ice houses.

Twentieth century refrigeration brought an end to the large-scale ice business. But each time we go to our “ice box” for a few cubes of ice or a cold beverage, we should realize that our ancestors did not just wait around for the invention of the refrigerator. They knew where to find the ice, and Frederic Tudor devised the means to meet the demand.

And, yes, I found water bottles that fit the bill (novara 24-ounce insulated bottles). I pack them with ice and put them in an insulated Igloo Maxcold pack, which I stuff in my backpack before heading out on an all-day hike. Even after refilling them once in a river or a creek, I always have some ice remaining at the end of the day. No, it’s not 98.6, thank goodness. And, like our ancestors, I’m not waiting around for someone to invent a power backpack to keep the water cold.

The video below is silent but shows how the ice harvesting process worked

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Ready to Wear Clothing

Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained-Period Drama on Paper at Middlemay Farm

Looking pretty snazzy . . . Looking pretty snazzy . . .

“In the 1800s, cowboys and other manual laborers wore what was called “ready-to-wear” — second-hand clothing that had been discarded by the higher classes.

With few exceptions (such as military uniforms), new clothing was not mass produced back then. If you wanted an outfit, you went to a tailor, who measured you and custom-made the shirt, suit, trousers, coat, or whatever. If you out-grew your duds or just got tired of them, you might sell them to a second-hand (or ready-to-wear) store, where they would be bought by folks who needed inexpensive clothes for work.

That’s why you’d often see cowhands riding the range wearing a suit coat or vest and dress pants (rather than jeans). Also, many veterans continued to wear parts of their former uniforms for work.

By the way, did you ever wonder why chimney sweeps usually wore top hats and…

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