How Thanksgiving Has Influenced American Architecture

The First Thanksgiving

There’s little doubt Thanksgiving is a significant feature of contemporary American culture – one only needs to look at the seemingly evermore frequent record numbers of people travelling home the fourth week of November to recognize America’s reverence for the holiday. Historically as well, we’re taught from an early age how the cooperative persistence of the Mayflower’s colonists became one of the most symbolic and enduring characteristics upon which our young nation would eventually be born. What’s likely not appreciated to the same extent is the significant effect Thanksgiving would have on American architecture. That’s right, your traditional turkey, stuffing, and everything pumpkin spice has absolutely left an indelible mark on America’s architectural legacy.

When Plymouth Colony was founded in 1620, the colony didn’t simply spring from the ground all at once. That first December, fewer than 10 plank and thatch roof buildings were built; having landed so late in the season, and having fewer than 100 able-bodied men capable of building semi-permanent structures after the nearly three month voyage meant most colonists lived aboard the Mayflower that first winter. Of those first buildings that were built along the colony’s Leyden Street (named after the Dutch city from which the colonists came), most were communal, and most served as places for the colonists to gather, perform service, and eat – after all, communal worship, of which communal eating was a significant part, were two of the colonists’ primary recreational past times. A small number of family residences were built that first year as well, but much like their communal counterparts, their primary function was to serve as facilities for preparing food and eating. The following year, when legend tells us the first Thanksgiving celebration was held, communal dining was an established tradition, enshrined in no small part from the notions of thanks, family, and sharing which we associate with Thanksgiving to this day.

Further emphasising the communal-focused and food-centric nature of Plymouth’s first buildings was a curious characteristic of the Plymouth colonists – the communal food platter. Partly a feature of the general tradition at the time and partly a characteristic of their puritanical beliefs, the Plymouth colonists did not dine with individual plates, forks, and cups; all of their meals were served upon a communal platter – a nascent cornucopia or Horn of Plenty, which we associate with Thanksgiving so well today. Serving food in such a way meant many early colonial buildings were designed with dining areas as the focus of the interior spaces, where longtables allowed families to gather and dine from the communal platter more easily.

As the Plymouth colony grew, and as the colony began to share and exchange influences amongst other New England colonial settlements, the tradition of building houses with communal dining areas became commonplace. In many cases, First Period colonial era homes featured a communal dining area as the sole function of the entire first floor. Georgian Colonial home design, which borrowed heavily from the First Period, and which became one of the most significant American architectural styles even to this century, originally shared the First Period’s emphasis for those same communal dining spaces. Not coincidentally, the tradition of using those spaces to celebrate the harvest with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner was also sewn into American culture at the same time. So, as you take time to give thanks this time of year, perhaps include our Plymouth forefathers and foremothers in your toast for helping define America’s architectural legacy.

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