Pandemic Thanksgiving

Black and white photo of seven people seated at a table with a white tablecloth.

Photograph of a Thanksgiving Dinner in Palawoo, California in 1918 with the Kingsley family.

Images courtesy of the Helen Keller Archive, American Foundation for the Blind.

Helen Keller the Movie Star

In the fall of 1918, Helen Keller travelled to southern California with her friend Polly Thompson and her teacher and interpreter Anne Sullivan Macy. The trip was part of a rather exciting film project for a movie about Helen Keller’s life, called Deliverance (and yes, you can watch it online!) Keller herself starred in the film and she toured around Los Angeles during the filming, meeting Hollywood’s elite. During a dinner hosted in her honor by Charlie Chaplin, Helen met Frank Nightingale, an engineer who worked for General Electric and owned a tract of land in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. Nightingale invited Keller and her friends, Polly, Anne, and the Kingsley family, to join him at his home (which he named “Palawoo”) for Thanksgiving. They accepted the invitation and Nightingale, an amateur photographer, captured the moment on film.

Pandemic Thanksgiving, an American Tradition?

The photo speaks to long standing American traditions around Thanksgiving (the Kingsley’s showed up with a 14 pound turkey and “all the fixins”), but it also highlights other noteworthy parallels to our own time. In November 1918, World War I came to a close, marking the end of a period of extreme violence and uncertainty. Turning to their Thanksgiving celebrations, Americans breathed a sigh of relief knowing that their loved-ones would soon be home and safe. At the same time, the month of November saw a slight reprieve in what had already been a terrible pandemic year as the Spanish Influenza swept across the globe. For many, the combination of the pandemic’s slump, exhaustion from months’ of closures and restrictions, and the excitement of the war’s end meant that Thanksgiving that year had even more meaning. Unfortunately, the pandemic had not finished with the country yet, and in the weeks following Thanksgiving, hundreds of thousands more Americans fell sick and died. Although Keller and her Thanksgiving party were spared, her niece back in Alabama, Katherine, fell sick in this last wave of the pandemic. She survived her bout with the flu and died in 1989, at the age of 78.