“I did not see the use of being uncomfortable on Thanksgiving day”: Tight Clothes and Big Meals in 19th-Century America

This guest post is by Manuscript Division historian and Civil War and Reconstruction specialist Michelle A. Krowl.

On December 5, 1861, sixteen-year-old Louisa Russell of Greenfield, Massachusetts, wrote to her mother, also a Louisa Russell. A previous letter to her mother mentioned family in Washington, D.C., and the Civil War, then in its first year, but this letter centered on domestic news. Although feeling “used up entirely” after that day’s visit to the dentist to have seven teeth filled, the younger Louisa instead focused much of her letter on a more pleasant subject, recalling her recent Thanksgiving celebration and all the good things she consumed during the course of the day.

A group of women in colorful dresses, four standing and one sitting discuss fashion in 1862

Capewell & Kimmel, “Godey’s fashions for February 1862,” Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“All the scholars were gone except Zelia Hodge & I so we did not get up till nearly eight oclock,” she wrote. “Had for breakfast broiled chicken and potatoes coffee and bread & butter. At half past ten we went to church Mr Deane preached a beautiful sermon and then we came home to dinner. For dinner we had for first course turkey and cranberry sauce squash & mashed potatoes. For second course, mince, apple pudding, & squash pies and whips.”

Louisa’s attire clearly privileged form over function, and indulging in a Thanksgiving feast left her feeling a bit constricted. “I wore my velvet basque and silk dress and you know it was always considerably tight and so after eating all that I went up stairs and unhooked all my clothes and ‘took it easy’ as they say.” Unfortunately, Louisa was not allowed to take it easy for long. “I was sitting in this condition when aunt Hannah came in and said that I must come down in the parlor.” With some reluctance and “much difficulty I hooked the skirt of my dress and put my calico sacque and went down in the parlor. They laughed at me considerably but I did not see the use of being uncomfortable on Thanksgiving day.” No doubt Louisa would have appreciated the comfy sweatpants option we enjoy today.

Louisa’s snug clothing did not preclude additional noshing later in the day, however, which she described for her brother Nathaniel. After a somewhat uncomfortable walk, she spent a pleasant evening at her Aunt Mary’s. “There were quite a number of folks there and we played games and had singing and music and had a very nice time generally. For refreshments (I suppose Nat would like to hear) we had wine jelly, rum jelly, cake, coffee and whips we came home about half past eleven very much pleased.”

Like many of us who hope to sleep in after a full Thanksgiving, Louisa “went to bed with the vain wish of not being waked until ten or eleven oclock the next day.”

Louisa Russell (1845-1893) worked as a clerk in the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. (1865-1869), before marrying fellow Treasury Department employee James Winne Whelpley (1834-1918) in October 1871.

Louisa’s Thanksgiving letter to her mother is part of the Whelpley Family Papers in the Manuscript Division. This collection will be of interest to researchers studying Louisa’s grandfather, New Hampshire Supreme Court chief justice William Merchant Richardson, and the French family of New Hampshire and Washington, D.C. Louisa’s maternal uncles, who both married Richardson sisters, were Commissioner of Public Buildings Benjamin Brown French and his brother Henry Flagg French, the father of sculptor Daniel Chester French. The Whelpley collection was donated to the Library of Congress in 2015 by former District of Columbia Superior Court judge Mary Ellen Abrecht (1945-2018), great-granddaughter of Louisa Russell and James W. Whelpley.

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