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Family Tradition: The Lieber Thanksgiving

November 22, 2021

Our collection in the William H. Smith Memorial Library contains its fair share of guestbooks and scrapbooks, but I think I have stumbled upon the only holiday-specific hybrid guestbook/scrapbook in the archive! From 1921-1950 the Lieber family of Indianapolis kept a Thanksgiving book that recorded their yearly family dinner. The Lieber family used Thanksgiving as an opportunity for a family reunion, as their first ancestor in the United States, German immigrant Herman Lieber, adopted the custom of his new country, observing the holiday as decreed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. In 1921, the Lieber family began a book to document their Thanksgiving celebration in order to “let a brief record of each occasion be entered and thus present for us and for those who follow, a chronicle of the joy and gladness of our Thanksgivings.”

Many Lieber Thanksgiving gatherings featured special place cards for each guest, and sometimes there were thematic games. This card from the 1909 Lieber Thanksgiving, which features an acrostic poem, belonged to Ida Kothe, Herman Lieber’s daughter. Herman Lieber Family Papers, M0215

After Herman Lieber’s death, his son Otto and wife Matilda “Till” Lieber took over hosting the family festivities in their home at 1559 Park Avenue in what is now known as the Old Northside neighborhood of Indianapolis. Some of their relations, including the Stempfels and the Kothes also resided in that area.

Photographs of the tables in the Otto and Till Lieber family home, ready for family revelry. Many years, there were interesting or cheeky centerpieces set up for family members to enjoy. Herman Lieber Family Papers, M0215.

Each year, there is a page where all the family members attending dinner sign in, as well as a recap of the day’s events from the Thanksgiving “secretary”, (usually one of the younger cousins), and many times correspondence from absent but well-wishing family members. The correspondence from absent family members, if received in time, would be read aloud to all who were gathered.

1927 was the record year for the Lieber Thanksgiving, with 45 family members in attendance. Herman Lieber Family Papers, M0215.

1933 was a bittersweet occasion, as one can see from the yearly recap, it is the first year of celebrating without unofficial family patriarch, Otto Lieber. Till Lieber continued hosting for a couple more years in their home, until she downsized her living space and the family celebration relocated to rooms at the Athenaeum, 401 E. Michigan St., Indianapolis. In later years of the celebration, numbers began to dwindle a bit down to about 27 or so attendees, especially during World War II when six members of the family were serving the armed forces and were stationed all over the country and overseas. Herman Lieber Family Papers, M0215.

Every year, the family sat down to their turkey, cranberries, and dressing at 1 o’clock. Most of the time, there was some sort of creative game to determine where each guest would sit. For instance, in 1928, everyone was given a jack-o-lantern and the number of teeth determined table groups.

The 1928 method for determining the seating chart at Lieber Thanksgiving. Herman Lieber Family Papers, M0215.

After the turkey dinner, most family members would step out for a bit to go for a walk, visit with neighbors, go to the movies, or attend a local football game. However, everyone would return to Uncle Otto and Aunt Till’s in the evening for cheese and crackers, fruit, cakes, tea, and coffee. At this time, the musical performances and recitations began (some in English, some in German), led by the “younger generations”, and then group songs. It seemed like there was also a bit of family hazing, as new additions to the family were usually asked to perform or recite. After the performances and stunts, there would be games of bridge and more visiting with family before everyone dispersed for the night around 10 p.m.

I hope you enjoyed this peek into a charming artifact of family life and Thanksgivings past as much as I did. If you want to know more or would like to see the scrapbook for yourself, you can always make an appointment with our Library reference staff at reference@indianahistory.org.

Maire Gurevitz is an archivist at IHS. In her free time, she can be found at the yoga studio or working on her Hoosier-themed romance novel.

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