Rare Abandon

An old-time Thanksgiving, with tennis, vaudeville, and firecrackers

"It is evident that the custom of keeping Thanksgiving is becoming stronger," went the Knoxville Tribune column.

There'd never been this many people here to keep it. Knoxville was a booming factory and wholesale town in 1887. Everyone that year was remarking how much bigger Knoxville was than it had been only five or six years earlier, and how full of strangers. One prominent old-timer remarked with some astonishment that he walked the length of Gay Street on an especially crowded day and saw only six faces he recognized.

Another observer, a newspaper editor, remembered a day not long ago when he recognized most of the people he saw downtown. Now, he said, "those recognized will not amount to more than one in ten."

He didn't lament that fact. "Nothing is more convincing of the growth of Knoxville," he said, "than to see the many strange faces as they go hurrying by upon their respective businesses."

Strangers made the old place interesting, even if there was, as always, a danger. In the wake of the Haymarket Square bombings in Chicago, an international anarchist movement was threatening to overthrow the government. "To be equals we aspire," went one peculiar verse. "We will win or we'll expire." Though it wasn't known to be associated with the anarchist network, a miner's riot in Jellico that Thanksgiving week had left eight dead.

Thanksgiving seemed like a bigger deal than usual. Knoxvillians had "kept" the holiday in one way or another since the earliest days. Thanksgiving Day feasting and toasting went back to the 1790s, but in the 1880s the general closings of stores and factories on this holiday was still a novelty.

The anonymous reporter strolled around town that Thursday, describing what he saw in a column headlined "THANKSGIVING DAY: The Manner Of Its Observance In Knoxville." He found it remarkable that "all seemed like a sort of artificial Sunday with a few more Sabbath breakers than usual."

Some businesses did stay open, and may have given thanks that they did. "The fruit stands, the restaurants, the butcher shops and bakeries...seemed to be enjoying unusual prosperity."

Though dining in a restaurant on holidays may seem like a modern outrage, it was fairly common in Victorian Knoxville. "In and out of the restaurants people went," wrote the columnist, "not one at a time, but in groups, for it would be a sin to eat Thanksgiving dinner alone."

Turkeys were popular on Thanksgiving—Market Square sold several hundred of them that week—but so were suckling pigs. Adorned with bows of blue ribbons on their tails and apples in their mouths, the pigs looked "cleaner than they had ever looked in their lives, but also they were awfully disfigured by the change which the butcher had made" around their throats. "The expression on their faces was sad in comparison with...the porcelain pigs in the china store," which "seemed to have a merry twinkle in their eyes and appeared contented for the first time that they were not real pigs."

Knoxvillians' celebration of Thanksgiving was "as varied as human nature itself." Long before it was a predictable routine of indoor pastimes—turkey dinner, televised football, and a nap—Thanksgiving in 1887 was both more and less reverent than it is today.

For hundreds of Knoxvillians, Thanksgiving was mainly a religious holiday, centered around the morning church services; most Knoxville churches hosted Thanksgiving Day services.

But outside the sanctuaries, Thanksgiving was also a pretty noisy occasion. Victorian Knoxvillians responded to nearly every holiday with firecrackers. "The small boy finds difficulty in expressing his gratitude...without a pocketful of firecrackers," wrote the Tribune columnist. "His older brother thinks the proper way to celebrate is with a gun." Thanksgiving Day hunts were on old tradition in many families.

Meanwhile, "he of the twirling cane and downy mustache sees no joy in life without a girl." Adolescents would change their styles over the years, as the twirling cane gave way to the Walkman, but they've kept their downy mustaches and their preoccupations.

Some read the Tribune's Thanksgiving Day ghost story, a tall seafaring tale called "Ghosts Abroad," or the new serialized Bret Harte novel, Thankful Blossom.

Others played tennis; the Knoxville Lawn Tennis Club met at their Hill Ave. clubhouse on Thanksgiving Day for a little holiday tournament. They followed it, in the clubhouse, with some Thanksgiving Day card games: euchre and whist. Then a little dancing. On its Hill, the tiny, all-male University of Tennessee hosted a chaperoned Thanksgiving Hop, attended by about 40 students and dates.

Meanwhile that night, the Opera House opened for a Thanksgiving Day comedy show: a well-known vaudeville comedian named J.B. Polk, in his persona Joe Pickle, was going through his "Mixed Pickles" routine "with rare abandon...."

However, down the hill in the poolhalls and saloons of the Bowery, other Knoxvillians kept the holiday in other ways. They didn't make it to church or to feast, unless it was the free dinner at the YMCA. "Loudly their laughter rings, and wit is cheap and song is commonplace...." But later in the evening, it was all over, and in the saloons a holiday evening could be more thoroughly over than any other Thursday night's revelry. The columnist watched: "Some go home and some go home to other people's homes, but some alas to neither."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.