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An Ellis Island Thanksgiving


We typically associate Ellis Island with an abundance of people. From 1892 to 1954, millions of immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island, in New York Harbor. Most of us, however, probably don’t associate Ellis Island with an abundance of food – good food.

Immigrants at Ellis Island, c.1907-1917. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The immigrant experience at Ellis Island could be dreary and trying, and as Jane Ziegelman writes in 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement: at times “the immigrants’ dining room was among the island’s only bright spots.” The food on offer was free, wholesome, and, yes, abundant.

In 1894, the New York Times described a bountiful and festive Thanksgiving meal on the island:

Excerpt from The New York Times, November 30, 1894

In 97 Orchard, Ziegelman elaborates on this holiday scene: “Whether or not they grasped the meaning behind the meal, the immigrants were clearly swept up in the festive spirit of the day. In place of flowers, the women bedecked themselves with sprigs of celery plucked from the tables, while the children feasted on candy and oranges… The great majority of the guests had never seen a cranberry or an orange-fleshed potato, but the dish that perplexed them most was mince pie.”

Thanksgiving postcard c. 1907, courtesy the New York Public Library

The Museum will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, but it might be the perfect occasion for families to check out our online Immigration game. Become one of the immigrants passing through Ellis Island, with guidance from our young Victoria Confino interpreter. We’re thankful for our visitors!

—Posted by Amanda Murray