A Coolidge Thanksgiving

President and Mrs. Coolidge leaving church, Thanksgiving, 11/27/24

Not surprisingly, Thanksgiving, this most puritan of holidays, held special meaning for Calvin Coolidge, as his antecedents truly had been among the Pilgrim Fathers. His forebears sailed with Governor John Winthrop to the new Massachusetts Colony in 1630, and John Coolidge began his life in America as a farmer in Watertown and was a deputy to the General Court. His descendants migrated northward to Plymouth, Vermont after the Revolutionary War. Some of the log houses from that era were still standing when Calvin Coolidge was a boy in the 1870s.

Thus when president Coolidge spoke of the pilgrims with reverence, he was speaking of his own family line. And for him, giving thanks always was as important as being thrifty:

“If at any time our rewards have seemed meager, we shall find our justification for Thanksgiving by carefully comparing what we have with what we deserve. The little band of Pilgrims who first established this institution on the shore by Plymouth Rock had no doubts. If their little colony of devoted souls, when exiled to a foreign wilderness by persecution, cut in half by disease, surrounded by hostility and threatened with famine, could give thanks how much more should this great nation, less deserving than the Pilgrims yet abounding in freedom, peace, security and plenty, now have the faith to return thanks to the author of all good and perfect gifts.”

 

(text partly adapted from a Vermont Public Radio interview with Cyndi Bittinger, former executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation)

A Chief Executive with Moxie

We know Calvin Coolidge had “the ability to face difficulty with spirit and courage” –¬† so, by the dictionary definition, he certainly had “moxie.” It is also claimed that the eponimous soft drink, which pre-dates Coca-Cola or Pepsi by a couple of years and which originated in Lowell, Massachusetts, was a favorite in the Coolidge household. I’ve even read that Moxie was the beverage with which Calvin Coolidge¬† toasted his midnight swearing-in as U.S. president.

Due to its main ingredient, gentian root, Moxie has a strong medicinal bitter-sweet smell and flavor and is certainly an acquired taste. Gentian is supposed to help digestion and soothe the stomach, which may have appealed to Coolidge who suffered from digestive problems all his adult life.

Moxie was the nation’s first mass-marketed soft drink thanks to the head of its advertising campaign Frank M. Archer. Archer had started out as a clerk at the company and worked his way up into the position, where his advertising program made Moxie America’s most popular soft drink up until the 1920’s. A common sight in Moxie advertising was the “Moxie Man”, said to be a likeness of Archer himself. He showed up on much of the advertising material, often pointing a finger and admonishing the reader to “Drink Moxie”. A pioneering commercial jingle for the nation’s first mass-marketed soft drink was produced in 1904¬† on the occasion of the St. Louis World’s fair, with lyrics that went:

…just make it Moxie for Mine,
For the strenuous life it is fine.
It’s a drink that they serve,
Which will build up your nerve.
So just make it Moxie for Mine!

Maybe Coolidge also felt the drink fortified him for his strenuous job as president. Or maybe it was the marketing claim that drinking “the distinctive beverage for those of discerning taste” showed refinement and culture. In any event, Coolidge would be pleased to know that Moxie still ekes out a place on grocery shelves in New England and is consumed by loyal fans who wisely ignore the fact that the brand today is owned by a Japanese brewing giant.

 

Father knows best

What was Calvin Coolidge like as a dad? For one thing, as running for office and holding office were his (only) hobbies, he was often absent, particularly in his Boston years, when he commuted home to Northampton on weekends. When he did spend time with his boys, he was apt to imbue them with the spirit of thrift and discipline. Thus, when walking past the Northampton bank where John and Calvin Jr. had their savings accounts, he would remind them, “Boys, listen here a minute and maybe you can hear your money working for you.”

There is little question that Coolidge was of the stern-yet-kind father variety portrayed in period movies. Raised on 19th-century notions of child rearing, he expected prompt obedience from his boys, resorting to the occasional cuff to the ears when they were misbehaving, but largely ruling by direction and precept rather than force. Placing great value on education, he closely scrutinized their reports and made tart observations when they were doing less well than they could have.

But his strictness was generally tempered with humor. An anecdote related in Ishbell Ross’ biography of Grace Coolidge relates one incident where Calvin Jr. was on the receiving end of his father’s impish humor:

The Coolidges sometimes went to Rahar’s Inn in Northampton for Sunday supper, where Calvin had taken his meals for seven years before his marriage. The boys considered this a treat. They had the run of the place and here young Calvin had his first encounter with a finger bowl. A thin slice of lemon floated on the water. He looked up at his father and inquired about its purpose.

“To drink,” said his father solemnly. Calvin picked it up and drank, until his mother explained the true function of the bowl.

Another episode related by Grace Coolidge concerned a lesson in thrift. The family had spent a night with Mr. and Mrs. Stearns at their Swampscott residence. There, Mr. Coolidge overheard Mr. Stearns asking young Calvin about a gift of five dollars, which he had sent him as a birthday gift and which the boy had neglected to acknowledge.

“All the way to Poland Springs the following day, his father questioned Calvin about what he had done with the money. After we arrived and had been shown to our romms young Calvin was seated at a desk, given a pencil and paper, and bidden to write down all the things he could remember for which he had spent his five dollars. At dinner time he had not made much headway.

The following day was an uncomfortably hot Sunday. We attended service in the chapel. The visiting minister had a long sermon. There was no air stirring. I do not believe that many who were in the congregation followed the discourse closely. After we had left the church and were walking back to the hotel, my husband turned to me and asked, “Mammy, what was the sermon about?” “Mercy,” I said, “don’t ask me!” Turning to the boys, he asked, “John, what was the sermon about?” “I don’t know,” was the answer. Then it was Calvin’s turn. The question was repeated. The boy squirmed uncomfortably and said he didn’t remember. “Yes, you do, too,” his father told him and kept at it until, with a resigned shrug, his son murmured, “Aw, spending money!”