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In 1895, the first US Ambassador met with a group of American businessmen in Grosvenor Square to found the American Society in London. Along with its first chairman, Benjamin Franklin Stevens, he decided an excellent way to demonstrate the true nature and quality of America and its citizens abroad was to welcome the British to our patriotic holiday feasts.
Our second chairman, Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Trust, sought greater ties with England and recognition for the American community. His aim was to have lasting friendships along with a general acknowledgement of American status and appeal from the British people. Honored guests invited to the dinners were chosen from the educational and ruling ranks; industry, the arts, as well as high society, in order to promote Anglo-American bonds.
According to the book The Peopling of London, the social and commercial elite flocked to mix at these new occasions. Dignitaries and visitors to England such as Mark Twain joined the members and guests at the dinners, and over the years, speakers included prime ministers such as Winston Churchill and John Major.
A newspaper illustration of 1896 showed the great and the good dressed in white tie gathered around an object of enormous curiosity in the form of a giant pumpkin displayed in its full glory, and the guests were described as turkey-mad.
Turkey was well installed in almost all the European countries by the end of the 16th century; and 18th century France followed our lead in the turkey craze. Americans now eat an average of 18 lbs. of turkey a year, but for eighty years, the American Society white-tie ball was the destination for the ex-pats to celebrate.
Dinners before the first World War would have had nine courses with nineteen dishes, beginning with Champagne and caviar, and ending with cigars. Cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie were on the menu with the turkey as well as courses of salads, soup, fish, duck, veal, chicken, ham and ice cream. The balls were suspended during both world wars, and luncheons took their place. During the austere years that followed the end of World War II, “sweet potatoes” were served, but they were white potatoes with sugar sprinkled on top.
The galas took place at the great hotels, such as the Savoy, where our chairman Gordon Selfridge danced the night away with the Dolly Sisters and his famous friends during the 1920s. ‘Big Bang’ (the reformation of the stock market in the ‘80s), brought a whole new generation of Thanksgiving revellers, thousands of whom flocked from the States to London. The great evenings continue, and for many years we have had the privilege of inviting the British and American military as our honoured guests.
Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird instead of the eagle, but with the advent of the American Revolution, eating turkey was viewed as a symbol of solidarity. Today, 124 years after being founded, the American Society knows that serving turkey with all the trimmings is the best way to share this great occasion with our British friends.
The American Society in London’s 2019 Thanksgiving Dinner takes place on November 22. For information on membership please email firstname.lastname@example.org.