It Wasn’t Always About Eating and Shopping

How Thanksgiving became the consumption holiday that we know and love.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
An illustration of price tags in the shape of a Thanksgiving turkey.
An illustration of price tags in the shape of a Thanksgiving turkey.
An illustration of price tags in the shape of a Thanksgiving turkey. Mark Harris illustration for Foreign Policy

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week. Like with most holidays, the origin story is a little fuzzy. What we do know is that Americans tend to do a lot of traveling, eat a lot of turkey, and buy a lot of consumer goods over the holiday—making Thanksgiving a time of spending.

How much spending? And how does the holiday affect the U.S. economy? Those are two of the questions that came up in my recent conversation with Foreign Policy economics columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity.

For the full conversation, look for Ones and Tooze wherever you get your podcasts.

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week. Like with most holidays, the origin story is a little fuzzy. What we do know is that Americans tend to do a lot of traveling, eat a lot of turkey, and buy a lot of consumer goods over the holiday—making Thanksgiving a time of spending.

How much spending? And how does the holiday affect the U.S. economy? Those are two of the questions that came up in my recent conversation with Foreign Policy economics columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity.

For the full conversation, look for Ones and Tooze wherever you get your podcasts.

Cameron Abadi: The demand for turkeys obviously surges around November every year. But at the same time, Adam, the price also drops. So I thought I’d just ask you, how exactly does that work? What are the economics of turkeys?

Adam Tooze: So for listeners around the world, we should say that really the only two groups of people I know that eat turkey on a huge scale are British people at Christmas and Americans at Thanksgiving, and I guess some Americans also eat turkey at Christmas. But otherwise, it’s just sort of famous as a lean meat, which isn’t terribly tasty. And most people prefer chicken. But turkey in the United States around this time of year is a huge deal. And the way it works is not that, as it were, they rear all the turkeys and then the poor things will get slaughtered all at once in time for Thanksgiving, because that wouldn’t work. But instead, basically, you’ve got to think of the turkey population as a kind of steadily maintained tens of millions of birds that are slaughtered throughout the year and then put in cold storage and frozen, which is why the vast majority of turkeys that you can buy in the United States around this time of year are frozen. And by the week before Thanksgiving, about somewhere between 500 and 600 million pounds of turkey are sitting in cold storage around the United States waiting to be unloaded into supermarkets. So that’s about two pounds of turkey—this is including bone, of course, because it’s always the whole bird—per American that’s waiting to go onto the market. So you can see what the story is. Basically, there is indeed a huge surge in demand for turkey, but at that moment, this is the moment to sell the turkey you’ve stored. And so you sell it at whatever price you can get for it. And in any case, from the point of view of supermarkets, the turkey is not exactly a loss leader, but it’s a product on which you don’t generally expect to make a lot of money. The margins on turkey are in the order of 20 to 30 cents per pound as opposed to, you know, a couple of dollars on beef, for instance. By selling the turkey cheap, what you attempt to do is to lure families into your particular supermarket so they spend money on all the other things, which are higher margin.

CA: So Thanksgiving is famously the busiest travel period of the year in the United States. Anywhere from 4.5 million people to 20 million passengers are expected to travel to visit family. So, Adam, this got me wondering, are these kinds of settlement patterns that require people to get on a plane to visit their family a function just of the size of the United States? And which direction are these settlement patterns moving? Are Americans increasingly or decreasingly staying near their close families?

AT: So these numbers about American air travel during Thanksgiving are a little bit dodgy, to be honest, because you can see a figure for 4.5 million out there a lot, which is just far too low, I think, because that’s basically less than 2 percent of the American population flying. The number of 20 million seems a little bit more reasonable to me. It suggests 7 or 8 percent of the population fly long distance to see their families. We think about 50 million people travel by car. And this is consistent with what we know, I think, about where Americans live in relation to their families, because broad surveys done by the Pew [Research Center] suggest that about 55 percent of American adults live within an hour’s drive of at least some members of their extended family, the kind of folks you’d expect to do Thanksgiving with. And that is structured exactly as you would expect. So higher-income Americans and Americans with more education tend to live farther away, because they go to labor markets where their skill set is more highly rewarded, whereas folks with lower education and lower incomes tend to be more local and stay closer to their primary family.

CA: OK. That sounds like potentially the data suggests that people just don’t like their families as much as they might claim or might think.

AT: They just can’t stand the stress around the turkey, most likely.

CA: Yeah. Tell me about it. So anyone who grows up in the United States learns that the origins of Thanksgiving traced back to this mythic meal that was shared between the pilgrims and the Native Americans in the colony of New Plymouth. I was curious, Adam, how we should think about this mythic meal in a more historical context. I mean, was this an actual act of sharing a harvest, like American kids are taught? Or is this better thought of as a kind of breaking of bread before an extended bid for colonialism across the continent? I mean, maybe another way of asking this is just how exclusionary is the Thanksgiving holiday?

 AT: Yeah, I mean, it’s a question that forces itself on one’s consciousness given the subsequent history of white settlement in North America and the disaster that the settlers inflict on the original native population. But I think we probably have to historicize this in the sense that the first encounter does appear, I think according to the sort of early American historians I’m able to read, to have been largely cooperative and indeed a celebration. There were more Wampanoag attendees at that first dinner in 1621 than there were settlers. There were only 50 of the pilgrims that survived that first year. And they invited the locals, who’d been extremely helpful to them in getting through that first terrible experience of settlement. Within years, however, relations break down, and we have at least one instance in 1637 of the settler population literally celebrating a military victory over their Indian foes; in other words, essentially celebrating a massacre. It’s worth saying, though, that the modern institution of Thanksgiving—and this also, I think, gives it its peculiar coloration of an unambiguous sort of celebration of American migration and immigration, really—dates to the 19th century. Thanksgiving was not celebrated across the United States outside New England through to the middle of the 19th century. And the association of Thanksgiving with turkey dates to sort of folklorist investigation of the early pilgrim dinners. The investigations took place 200 years later in the 1840s, so it was for the bicentennial of the original settlement that in the 1820s, ’30s, ’40s interest began to revive in the Thanksgiving meal. And it’s not instituted as a national holiday until [former President] Abraham Lincoln’s time. Of course, by that time the game was played out. The massacres had taken place. And they’re still ongoing through to the end of the 19th century. And the structures of discrimination continue all the way down to the present day. The commercial history of Thanksgiving really takes off 100 years later, in the 20th century.

CA: So I guess, just to finish off, the day after Thanksgiving is famously the busiest shopping day of the year. They call it Black Friday in the United States. And that name has now been adopted abroad as a day for shopping. So what is the origin of Black Friday, exactly? And what is its significance for the U.S. economy, specifically?

AT: Well, it seems that the way this works—and I speak very much as an outsider to this tradition— but basically the idea is the day after Thanksgiving initiates the pre-Christmas shopping season. So from the early 20th century onward across many North American towns, including in Canada, you see local department stores sponsoring parades. The most famous one is in New York, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And as the final float on many of these parades, you would have Father Christmas arriving to announce: Now, dear children, you can legitimately begin harassing your parents about the Christmas gifts you want. And so that then prompted department stores in the 1950s to begin instituting a huge sale on that particular day. And it was apparently the local police department in Philadelphia that named that day Black Friday because of the chaos that would ensue. It’s not until the 1980s that Black Friday sales go truly nationwide and become the institution that they are today. And at that point, the name Black Friday takes on a different connotation, because it’s the moment the retail industry goes from being in the red to going in the black.

 

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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