Most Americans know the story of Thanksgiving, but the woman who helped ensure its status as a national holiday, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, is a little less familiar. Hale was an educated woman, prolific writer (of novels, poems, essays, and even the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”!), magazine editor, and an advocate for women’s education and numerous other causes—including the cause for a national day of thanks.

Hale portrait, 1831
Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin

Bruce David Forbes explores Hale’s legacy in his new book, America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories:

“In 1846, with Godey’s Lady’s Book [the magazine Hale edited] as her base of influence, Hale began writing strongly worded editorials every year promoting Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and the November issues of her magazine were filled with Thanksgiving poems, heartwarming short stories about family gatherings for Thanksgiving dinner, cooking advice, and much more. Hale understood that the first step was to persuade as many states as possible to adopt the holiday, and then a national mandate might follow.”

Hale letter to Lincoln
1863 letter from Hale to President Lincoln discussing Thanksgiving

“The bandwagon rolled along, pushed by Sarah Josepha Hale and supported by New Englanders scattered throughout the nation. New York had adopted the holiday in 1817, and Michigan in 1824, but the greatest number of states joined in the 1840s. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa added Thanksgiving in the 1850s. By 1860, Thanksgiving had been officially proclaimed in thirty states and two territories; territories sometimes declared the holiday even before they received statehood.”

Hale didn’t live to see Thanksgiving legally become a national holiday, but as we can all attest today, her efforts were certainly not in vain!

See here for other recent posts on the history behind our holidays.