Our thanks to Peter Wisbey, former Executive Director of the Seward House in Auburn, New York, who has contributed a three-part article on Holiday Traditions in the 19th Century.

At this time of year, with the crops harvested and the roads still passable, nineteenth-century New Yorkers began to dust off their party clothes and turn their thoughts to merrymaking.  Late fall and early winter were times for visiting friends and renewing the bonds of community.  William Henry Seward – governor, U.S. Senator and U.S. Secretary of State to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson – was one of the most powerful and recognized Americans of the era.  Yet he and his family used their home in Auburn for some very typical holiday celebrations.  With the Sewards as an example, let’s look at some of the customs and celebrations of the season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

Former Home of William H. Seward in Auburn

Former Home of William H. Seward in Auburn

Thanksgiving in the 19th Century

While people have celebrated the harvest for thousands of years, the national practice of Thanksgiving is relatively recent.  As governor of New York from 1839 to 1843, Seward proclaimed a series of state Thanksgiving celebrations.  Each state governor had the authority to proclaim a Thanksgiving Day.  Twenty years later however, in 1863, as Secretary of State, Seward suggested to President Abraham Lincoln that Thanksgiving become a national holiday.  In the midst of the Civil War, both Seward and Lincoln knew that Americans needed a day for prayer and renewal.  The proclamation, written by William Seward, was signed by Lincoln and established the national Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday of November.

The Sewards always set a beautiful table

The Sewards always set a beautiful table

The Seward house is located at 33 South Street in Auburn.  For more information about the museum, hours of operation and special events for the holidays, please call 315-252-1283 or visit the Seward House online.

Photos courtesy of The Seward House

If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read: Holiday Traditions of the 19th Century: Christmas and Holiday Traditions of the 19th Century: New Year’s Day.

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