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A brief history of immigrants' place at the national Thanksgiving dinner table

New Hampshire Public Radio has a terrific piece on how immigration has been tied over the years to Thanksgiving. It doesn't so much address the oft-cited tie to the arrival of the Mayflower, but what happened after President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 as a hopeful antidote to the strife of the Civil War.

Within a few years, immigration to the United States boomed along with its post-war economy, with new immigrants from Europe and China taking railroad and factory jobs. The piece quotes Lucy Salyer, an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, as it cites two examples of Thanksgiving political cartoons separated by an eight-year period during which the U.S. economy took a dive, as did attitudes toward new immigrants:

Two cartoonists as this time exemplified how divided the country was with this new immigrant population. The first came from Thomas Nast, a very popular cartoonist. Nast was a German immigrant himself. In November of 1869, six years after thanksgiving first was recognized, Nast composed a cartoon called "Uncle Sam"s Thanksgiving Dinner" for Harper"s Weekly Journal. In it you see a large round table with a young looking Uncle Sam carving a turkey. Around him are men and women of different ethnicities.

"All of these people from all these cultures are present as families, and what is also distinctive is that they are dressed in what we might call their native dress. So we see a lot of culture distinctiveness and diversity, but there doesn"t seem to be a lot of anxiety about that. Their sitting around an oval table which suggests perhaps a sense of equality."

There are portraits of Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Grant gazing on the dinner with approval, a painting of Castle Garden, the immigrant receiving center before Ellis Island, as well as inscriptions that say Come one, Come All and Free and Equal.

...But in direct contrast to that was another cartoon also called "Uncle Sam"s Thanksgiving Dinner". This one is drawn 8 years later and published for the Illustrated Wasp out of San Francisco. Much had happened in those eight years. The US was now in the grips of its first industrial depression, many immigrants who fueled those industries were out of work and many more were coming in. So this Thanksgiving table is much different. Its rectangular and Uncle Sam is still there but his guests and the feeling around the room is now very different.

...The Frenchman is consuming raw frogs. The man from China has skewered a live rat. The Russian has a stick of dynamite in his hand. No one is engaging with each other, and at the threshold of the door, many more people of different ethnicities, who look unpleasant and waiting to get in.

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