Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving in the Five Points (1852)

In the 1850s, the Five Points area in lower Manhattan, a now obliterated slum occupying the area adjoining what is now the Foley Square district and Chinatown, had the reputation -- no doubt to some extent exaggerated -- as the most squalid and depraved neighborhood in New York. The missionary ladies of the Five Points Mission, when not inveighing against drinking, Roman Catholicism, and other perils, organized an annual feast for the children of the mission school and as many of the other local denizens as they could feed. The following description is from The Old Brewery and the New Mission House, by the Ladies of the Mission; New York, Stringer & Townsend, 1854. The feast was held in a large tent in a park called Paradise Square.

The morning of Thanksgiving dawned in cloudless beauty, and as the day advanced, not a shadow dimmed the horizon. The cool, pure atmosphere, and the glowing sunshine, seemed to inspire every heart with courage.

We met in the office of the Old Brewery, formerly the liquor store of the establishment. This was a low, long room, with cracked and stained walls, its only furniture, besides the Missionary's bookcase, being some benches, and the boxes of clothing supplied by our kind friends from abroad. Provisions began to arrive and soon it presented a most ludicrous aspect. Turkeys, chickens, and meats of every kind mingled in sweet confusion with cakes, pies, fruits, &c. — evergreens on the floor, crockery on the window-sills and benches, huge piles of clothing waiting for distribution, visitors pouring in, childish faces peeping through every window and open door — commands, opinions, directions issuing from every quarter.

The tent is sixty feet in diameter, and very lofty. It is circular in form, and around it were tiers of seats, meeting at a small platform, where the speakers stood, at the temperance meetings, and on the Sabbath, to preach.

Eleven o'clock arrived, and notice was given that the tables in the tent were ready for the ladies. The seats had all been removed, and four tables, nearly the length of the tent, and about three feet wide, had been arranged, two on either side of the furnace, leaving wide passages between for the visitors. Soon the evergreens were festooned around by the gentlemen, then the floor was strewed with clean straw, and table-cloths of white muslin laid over the tables. By this time, hundreds of ragged, dirty children, had collected around the tent and Brewery. The food, all gathered in the Brewery, had to be removed to the tent. A door-keeper was stationed at each place, a passage-way cleared, and then ladies and gentlemen were transformed into carriers and waiters, (we could not trust any of the little rebels to help, though we had plenty of offers.) As they passed through rank and file of the hungry watchers, loud cheers were given for each successive turkey, and three long and loud for a whole pig with a lemon in his mouth, and it was difficult to conclude whether it was most appropriate to cry over the want displayed, or laugh over the temporary plenty provided.

During the time of these preparations, others of a different character were transpiring. The ladies were trying to select, first our Sunday school children, and next any who seemed hopeful. These were washed and dressed, and then each received a ticket which admitted them to the Mission-room, where friends received and entertained them. In the tent was a scene of activity — gentlemen carving the meats, ladies cutting the pies and cakes, and forming them in towering pyramids, the younger girls filling paper bags with candies and fruit, workmen hanging the lamps, others filling a large wicker-stand with dolls and toys of various kinds. At half past four all was ready. On our tables were sixty turkeys, with beef, ham and tongue, in proportion, and sundry chickens, geese, &c. Pies, cakes, bread, and biscuit, celery and fruit, and candy pyramids filled the slight intervals, and the whole presented an appearance inviting to the most fastidious appetites. Plates and cups were arranged around for more than three hundred; the lamps were lighted, and the signal given. Hundreds of visitors stood in silent expectation, and in a moment the sound of childish voices was heard, and they entered in regular procession singing —
"The morn of hope is breaking,
All doubt now disappears,
For the Five Points are waking
To penitential tears; [..]"
They took the circuit of the tent, and were then arranged, standing around the tables. They stood, with folded hands, while all sang the doxology, and the Missionary asked a blessing upon the occasion. Not a hand was raised, not a voice was heard, until the ladies and gentlemen who had charge of the tables supplied their hungry visitors with food. Then all was glad commotion, and then was the time for joyous tears. Three hundred and seventy poor, neglected, hapless children, placed for an hour in an atmosphere of love and gladness, practically taught the meaning of Christian kindness, wooed and won to cling to those whose inmost hearts were struggling in earnest prayer for grace and wisdom to lead them unto God. [...] They ate and drank without restraint until all were satisfied, then again formed and commenced singing. In the central aisle was placed the stand containing the toys and cornucopias of candy, and another filled with oranges and apples. By these, two ladies were seated. The children marched by them, in as much order as the dense crowd would permit, singing as they went, "We belong to this band, hallelujah," and in each hand the ladies placed a gift as they passed, until all were supplied. Then all the children left the tent.

There was now an interval of a few moments. The tables were hastily replenished, and then notice was given to the visitors, that the company now about to assemble were the "outsiders," about whom we knew nothing, save that they were poor and wretched, and all were warned to take care of their watches and pocket-books.

They came in scores, nay in hundreds; they rushed in and surrounded the tables, men, women, children, ragged, dirty, forlorn. [...] And the children who accompanied them, miniature likenesses, both physically and morally. Alas! alas!
"It needed no prophetic eye to see
How many yet must the same ruin share."
And we could scarcely hope to snatch these from the vortex. We spoke to them words of kindness and encouragement, and they partook until not a fragment was left, and then quietly left the tent.

More than a half-century later, in 1904, the Five Points Mission was still organizing Thanksgiving dinners, by then for more than a thousand children of the Lower East Side.

Update (2013): Below is a solicitation for donations for the mission's 1867 Thanksgiving Dinner. The return mail envelope is addressed to the Rev. James Newton Shaffer (1811-1901), who served for thirteen years as the organization's superintendent.

Dear Friend : —

We are making arrangements for our usual
for the Children of this well-known poor neighborhood.

May we ask you to enclose to us in the directed envelope a contribution to this object? If more than enough for the Dinner is received, it shall be faithfully used in providing for the sick and poor as far as it will go, through the winter.

You are cordially invited to visit the Mission, and acquaint yourself with its work and its success.

J. N. Shaffer,

(Posted 2010 and at various times since.)


chris dunn said...

A beautiful vignette of the history of poverty--now, please satisfy my curiosity--is this fiction or non-fiction?

Chris said...

It's non-fiction.

Michael Leddy said...

Old newspaper articles (say, a hundred years ago) suggest marked generosity to poor people and those in prison at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s interesting too that such treatment was routinely reported. I can’t recall ever seeing a news item about a prison’s holiday feast in my own time.

Chris said...

I suspect that the wall between the poor and the imprisoned on the one hand and the rest of society wasn't quite as high back then, but I don't know. On the other hand, charity could be quite a political battleground, with turf battles between established churches, mission societies, and public relief agencies. Newspapers were often just franker back then, even though certain subjects were taboo.