It’s Turkey Time!

Cover of the program from Thanksgiving 1910 at the Chittenden Hotel in Columbus, Ohio. Click the image to view the interior of the menu; the Chittenden featured music in addition to stuffed turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Via Ohio Memory.

Each year as November rolls around, many Americans’ thoughts turn to turkey. But how did this uniquely North American bird become a favorite dish on Thanksgiving tables?

Whether or not turkey is America’s gift to the world, it has become synonymous with Thanksgiving in the U.S. The Amherst News-Times, Nov. 18, 1920, courtesy of the Amherst Public Library via Ohio Memory.

Contrary to popular belief, Benjamin Franklin did not suggest the turkey as the national symbol of the fledgling United States. In a private letter written in 1784 to his daughter, however, he did praise the turkey as a respectable and courageous bird that “would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Throughout the colonial era, communities celebrated their own local days of thanksgiving, which were based on European harvest celebrations. In the early decades of the 19th century, individual states began scheduling annual Thanksgiving celebrations; turkey, which was fairly plentiful, became a popular entrée. However, influential author and editor Sarah Josepha Hale did more than any other individual to link the turkey with Thanksgiving. Her 1827 novel Northwood: Life North and South featured a detailed description of a New England Thanksgiving with roasted turkey. She also campaigned for decades to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, hoping to unite the increasingly divided country. By the time Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863, turkey was well on its way to becoming a tradition.

A Thanksgiving scene by Norman Rockwell, created as part of his 1943 Four Freedoms series for The Saturday Evening Post. Via the State Library of Ohio Historical Documents Collection on Ohio Memory.

As part of a voluntary rationing campaign in 1947, President Harry S. Truman promoted “Poultryless Thursdays,” which encouraged Americans to skip poultry and egg products. The Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation lobbied against the plan and, in a formal ceremony at the White House, gave the president a live turkey shortly before Thanksgiving. (After that turkeys were back on the menu, but “Eggless Thursdays” stayed in place for the rest of the year.) The National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation became an annual event. Although some of the turkeys ended up on the presidential table, many were sent to farms or petting zoos. George H.W. Bush was the first president to officially pardon the turkey in 1989.

Today, nearly 90 percent of Americans include turkey on their Thanksgiving tables. Wherever you are this Thanksgiving and however you celebrate, we wish you a safe, healthy, and happy holiday!

Thank you to Stephanie Michaels, Research and Catalog Services Librarian at theState Library of Ohio, for this week’s post!

Ohio Memory is celebrating 20 years! Visit our blog all year long to learn more about our program, partners and collections.


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