In 1939, the President got a pretty wacky idea about post-turkey shopping
Thanksgiving had been an official national holiday for decades when, in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt decided to mix things up.
The November calendar that year was an odd one: the month had started on a Wednesday, so there were five Thursdays rather than four Thursdays. Though Thanksgiving had been celebrated on the last Thursday of the month since the time of Lincoln, that August Roosevelt “broke his umptieth [sic] precedent,” in the words of TIME, and declared that he was moving the national Thanksgiving day up a week, the the second-to-last Thursday in the month.
Many people were not happy about the change, as TIME reported the week after it was announced:
Only since 1863 has Thanksgiving had a consistent year-to-year day, but football coaches were furious: 30% of them had games scheduled Nov. 30 which would now play to ordinary weekday crowds. Calendar-makers took the blow quietly except for Elliott-Greer Stationery Co. of Amarillo, Tex., which happily discovered it had designated Nov. 23 as Thanksgiving Day by mistake. Alf Landon sounded off in Colorado as follows: “. . . Another illustration of the confusion which his impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken in working it out . . . instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”
Yes, Roosevelt’s Republican rival did just compare FDR to Hitler because of this.
But FDR had a Black Friday-friendly explanation: merchants wanted a holiday that was farther from Christmas, allowing more time to shop. By that fall, 22 states had decided to play along with the change in their official calendars, 23 were sticking with tradition and Mississippi hadn’t decided. (Two states, Texas and Colorado, decided to observe both holidays.) The President stuck with the change the following year, declaring Nov. 21 to be the official Thanksgiving Day for 1940.
The following year, however, TIME’s headline on the topic was “President Admits Mistake”:
Midway in his press conference, with no change of voice or expression, the President picked up a memorandum and said there was one thing more. The reporters, expecting an announcement of the occupation of Martinique, or the declaration of a national emergency, sucked in their breath. They let it out again when they heard the President say that in 1942 Thanksgiving would be changed back to the traditional date, the last Thursday in November.
Nobody rushed for the telephone. But seasoned old Pundit Mark Sullivan grasped the full historic significance of the change: though some New Deal experiments had been killed by Congress, and a few had been invalidated by the courts, this was the first one to be formally renounced. The President made it clear that he had not been responsible for the mistake in the first place. Retail merchants had wanted the date of Thanksgiving set a week ahead to lengthen the shopping season before Christmas; the expected boon to trade had not materialized; the changed date had been an experiment and the experiment had not worked.
It was, by then, too late to change 1941’s calendars, on which the old-new Thanksgiving date (the third Thursday) had already been printed. And in Maine, things were even more extreme: “Now that President Roosevelt has gone back to the old Thanksgiving,” TIME reported, “Republican Governor Sumner Sewall has proclaimed the new Thanksgiving for the first time.”
By the end of 1941, Roosevelt had signed a bill officially sticking Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, whether or not it was the last Thursday of the month. His attempt to give Americans a longer holiday season had proved futile — but, as anyone at a mall this Friday could attest, his instinct about the nation’s desire to get shopping wasn’t entirely misguided.