In researching my historical novels, I wondered what my characters would have spent for a similar dinner. Since my books are set between 1930 and 1943, I thought it would be interesting to compare prices for several different years during the Depression and World War II.
Here’s what I found:
According to the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise, the cost of Thanksgiving for a family of six in 1930 was about $5.50. Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, that would be equivalent to about $103.22 today.
Of course, most families, especially in the rural areas where my stories take place, would have used ingredients they grew themselves or found locally. Chestnuts and apples, for instance, were common ingredients for stuffing the turkey. If you ever watched "The Waltons" television series, you know that the Thanksgiving turkey was probably harvested in the surrounding woods—if wild turkeys could be found. If not, a wild duck or an older hen past her laying prime might have graced the holiday table.
Pumpkin pie remained a perennial favorite for dessert, but only if you grew your own pumpkins, as the canned puree cost 25 cents for two cans. That was as much as a man might make for a half-hour of work.
A headline in the New York Times in November 1935 proclaimed, “Thanksgiving Dinner for Family is Higher” compared to the previous year. An advertisement in The Item of Millburn, New Jersey, offered turkeys at 37 cents per pound and two cans of cranberry sauce for 29 cents. Canned pumpkin, however, had decreased in price and was being sold for 10 cents a can.
|This photo showed a Thanksgiving table at the|
Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in 1935. A turkey
at the center of the table is surrounded by side
dishes, candles, and three place settings on
a white tablecloth.
Businesses often supplied free turkeys to their employees, and in some areas, turkeys were available free to anyone who obtained a ticket from a local retailer.
For those who wished to eat Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant, the Coffee Cup in Greenville, South Carolina, offered a seven-course turkey dinner for only 50 cents. If they lived in that area, an entire family of seven could enjoy a sumptuous meal for less than the cost of a 10-pound turkey. There’s no indication of what was on the menu besides turkey, but seven courses provided many opportunities. Of course, there'd be no turkey leftovers as there might have been when the turkey was cooked at home.
Cost became less of an issue during World War II as the U.S. Office of Price Administration (OPA) set the prices of many foods in order to stabilize the economy. But food shortages and rationing meant changes to the traditional Thanksgiving menu.
Still, turkey remained the main course of an idealized celebration, and it took center stage in Norman Rockwell’s painting, “Freedom from Want.” One of the “Four Freedoms” series, this became an iconic depiction of a Thanksgiving meal. The illustration of “overabundance” was criticized by some, especially in Europe where the war continued to cause deprivation.
"Freedom From Want" by Norman Rockwell
was published in The Saturday Evening Post, 1943.
The Kansas City Star contained nearly a full page of ads for turkey dinners “with all the trimmings” at various establishments. Prices ranged from 48 cents per plate at a place called The Forum to a whopping $2.50 at Siddall’s Restaurant in the Fairfax Airport dining room. At the latter, half portions were available for children, presumably at half price, which would bring the total to $7.50 for a family of four, or nearly $133 in 2023 dollars. For a moderate price of $1.25, you could enjoy a one-man “Boogie Woogie” opera with your meal at Silcott's Interlude Grill and Cocktail Lounge.
Elsewhere in the same newspaper was a listing of service clubs offering free Thanksgiving meals to those serving in the military.
However, the Columbus (Georgia) Ledger warned cooks to order their Thanksgiving turkeys early, as a shortage was predicted that year. Retail prices were expected to range from 42 to 54 cents a pound, depending on the age, size, and whether the turkey was “dressed or drawn.” The same article stated that most of the trimmings to go with the turkey were plentiful, and most were not rationed.
Part of the shortage at home was because the Armed Forces had contracted for turkeys well in advance of the holiday. A column in the Dixon (Illinois) Evening Telegraph pointed out, “For everyone there’s satisfaction knowing that the boys in uniform will have their turkey.”
Other newspapers that year reported butchers were selling turkeys for 13 to 18 cents above the ceiling price set by the OPA. So the Thanksgiving meal in 1943 might have depended on whether or not your family was even able to obtain a turkey.
How much will you spend for your Thanksgiving dinner this year? Are higher prices causing any change to your plans for the holiday meal?
Biltmore Hotel photo: Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives, UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library. Permalink: https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/21198/zz002dhcx2/
Freedom from Want, 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 3/4″ x 35 1/2″. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN.
Advertisement: Newspapers.com. The Kansas City Star, November 24, 1943. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-kansas-city-star-turkey-dinner-with/134723662/.
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