Adam Tooze on How Thanksgiving Became All About Traveling, Eating, and Shopping

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week. As with most holidays, the origin story is a little murky. We know that Americans travel more, eat more turkey, and buy more consumer goods during the holidays—making Thanksgiving a time of spending.

How much does it cost? And how will the holiday affect the US economy? Two questions that came up in a recent conversation with me foreign policy In a podcast we co-host, economics columnist Adam Tooze, Ones and Twos. The following is a summary edited for length and clarity.

For the full conversation, search Ones and Twos Get your podcasts anywhere.

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week. As with most holidays, the origin story is a little murky. We know that Americans travel more, eat more turkey, and buy more consumer goods during the holidays—making Thanksgiving a time of spending.

How much does it cost? And how will the holiday affect the US economy? Two questions that came up in a recent conversation with me foreign policy In a podcast we co-host, economics columnist Adam Tooze, Ones and Twos. The following is a summary edited for length and clarity.

For the full conversation, search Ones and Twos Get your podcasts anywhere.

Cameron Abadi: The demand for turkeys obviously increases in November every year. But at the same time, Adam, the price also falls. So I thought I’d ask you, how exactly does this work? What are the economic aspects of Turkey?

Adam Tooze: So for listeners around the world, we should say that really the two groups that I know eat turkey in a big way, the British people at Christmas time and the Americans at Thanksgiving, and I think some Americans eat turkey at Christmas time as well. But otherwise, it is known as a lean meat, which is not very tasty. And most people like chicken. But turkey is a pretty big deal in the United States this time of year. And that’s not the way it works, they raise all the turkeys and the poor people get slaughtered all at once at Thanksgiving, because it doesn’t work. But instead, basically, you have to think of the turkey population as a kind of stable managed tens of millions of birds that are slaughtered throughout the year and then put into cold storage and frozen, which is why the vast majority of turkeys you can buy in the United States are frozen at this time of year. And the week before Thanksgiving, between 500 and 600 million pounds of turkey sit in cold storage around the United States waiting to be unloaded into supermarkets. So that’s a two-pound turkey—including the bone, of course, which is always the whole bird—waiting to go to market for an American. You can see what the story is. Generally, there is a huge increase in demand for turkey, but at that time, this is the moment to sell your stored turkey. So sell it at whatever price you can get it for. And in any case, from the supermarket’s point of view, turkey is definitely not a loss leader, but a product that you don’t normally expect to make a lot of money on. For example, margins on turkey are on the order of 20 to 30 cents per pound, as opposed to two dollars on beef. By selling turkey cheap, what you’re trying to do is lure families into your specialty supermarket so they spend money on all the other high-margin items.

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CA: So Thanksgiving is the busiest travel season of the year in the United States. Anywhere from 4.5 million to 20 million passengers travel to visit family. So, Adam, it makes me wonder, are these kinds of settlement patterns where people have to fly to visit family just a function of the size of the United States? And in what direction are these solution models moving? Are Americans staying closer to their immediate families more or less?

AT: So these numbers are a little deceiving about American air travel during Thanksgiving, to be honest, you can see the 4.5 million number there, which is very low, I think, because it’s basically less than 2 percent. A soaring American population. The 20 million number seems a bit more reasonable to me. It suggests that 7 or 8 percent of the population has to travel long distances to see their families. We think about 50 million people travel by car. And it’s consistent with what we know, I think, about where Americans live in relation to their families, because of the broad surveys done by Pew. [Research Center] About 55 percent of American adults indicate that they live within an hour of some member of their family with whom you would expect to spend Thanksgiving. And it’s built exactly as you’d expect. So high-income Americans and Americans with more education tend to live farther away as they move to labor markets where their skill set is more rewarded, while those with less education and lower incomes tend to be more local and closer to their primary. the family

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CA: Also. The data seems to suggest that people don’t love their families as much as they claim or think.

AT: They cannot withstand the pressure around Turkey.

CA: Yes. Tell me about it. So for anyone growing up in the United States, the origins of Thanksgiving can be traced back to this mythical meal shared between the Pilgrims and Native Americans in the New Plymouth Colony. I’m curious, Adam, how we should think about this mythical meal in a more historical context. I mean, is this an actual act of sharing the harvest as taught to American children? Or was it a good idea to break bread of some kind before an expanded bid for colonialism across the continent? I mean, another way to ask this is how much of an exception is the Thanksgiving holiday?

AT: Yes, I mean, it’s a question that presses on one’s consciousness because of the subsequent history of white settlement in North America and the disaster that settlers inflicted on the original native population. But I think we should probably historicize it in the sense that the first encounter appears, from what I’ve been able to read of early American historians, to be largely collaborative and indeed a celebration. At that first feast in 1621, more Wampanoags than settlers attended. Only 50 pilgrims survived that first year. And they invited the natives, who were very helpful to them in getting the first terrible experience of the settlement. Over the years, however, relations would break down, and in 1637 we have a case of the settled population literally celebrating a military victory over their Indian enemies; In other words, there must be a massacre. However, the modern institution of Thanksgiving—and I think it also lends a peculiar color to the unmistakable celebration of American immigration and emigration, really—dates back to the 19th century. Thanksgiving was not celebrated throughout the United States outside of New England until the mid-19th century. And Thanksgiving’s association with turkey is relevant to folklorists’ research of early Pilgrim feasts. The discoveries were made 200 years later in the 1840s, so the bicentennial of the original settlement saw a resurgence of interest in the Thanksgiving meal in the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s. And it was not established as a national holiday until now [former President] Abraham Lincoln’s time. Of course, by then the game was played. There were massacres. And they were still going until the end of the 19th century. And structures of discrimination continue to this day. The commercial history of Thanksgiving really begins 100 years later in the 20th century.

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CA: So I guess, just to wrap up, the day after Thanksgiving is famously the busiest shopping day of the year. They call it Black Friday in the United States. And that name is now adopted abroad for shopping. So what exactly is the origin of Black Friday? And what is its significance specifically for the US economy?

AT: Well, that’s the way it works—and I’m speaking a lot as an outsider to this tradition—but basically the idea is the day after Thanksgiving kicks off the pre-Christmas shopping season. So since the early 20th century in many North American towns, including Canada, you’ll see local department stores sponsoring parades. The most famous is in New York, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And at the end of most of these parades, Father Christmas has to come to announce: Now, dear children, you can legally start pestering your parents about the Christmas presents you want. This prompted department stores in the 1950s to launch massive sales on a particular day. And the local police department in Philadelphia named the day Black Friday because of the chaos that ensued. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Black Friday sales really took off across the country and became the institution they are today. And at that time, the name Black Friday takes on a different meaning, as this is the moment when the retail industry goes from being in the red to being in the black.

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