Tom Turkey’s story had some editorial changes when it appeared in print this week. For those who care to see the original text, here it is. Additional images are also included. Happy Thanksgiving!
Turkey anyone? This bird made it to the dining table not only uncooked, but also unplucked. The postcard was mailed in 1908.
By Thomas A. Turkey
Santa has it easy, the smarmy ol’ geezer.
Everyone loves him. King of the holiday seasons. Giver of gifts. Employer of elves during tough economic times.
Makes me wanna puke.
Some of us don’t have it so good. Not this time of year, buddy. Thanksgiving’s comin’ like a freakin’ freight train. Your friends and family are setting tables and sharpening knives. Mine are looking over their shoulders and updating wills.
You don’t see St. Nick fretting over his imminent demise. Mr. Golden Boy. He’s got it all: festive parades, cushy thrones and a bevy of vertically challenged helpers at his beck and call. The mere mention of Santa brings smiles to millions of children worldwide. My name’s generally used as an adjective in front of the words dinner, gravy and sandwich — not much giddy excitement there.
It’s always been that way, you understand. Foul mistreatment. Fowl mistreatment. Call it what you like. Tomato, tomahtoe. Even a hundred years ago, when corporal-punishment Santa carried a switch, he was still some blessed hero, while I was being offered up as the main course. Worse even. No one treated me with dignity. Want proof? Take a gander at some vintage holiday ephemera — Thanksgiving postcards. You’ll see what I mean.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of complacency, thinking Thanksgiving postcards from the early 1900s were all about smiling Pilgrims and horns of plenty. You’d be wrong. Even in the late 19th century, some illustrators were treating the holiday theme from a fatalistic perspective.
Look no further than a circa-1885 Prang greeting card, which depicts a young girl in a dress and bonnet. Seated on a branch, she has her arm around a turkey, all friendly like. Best buds. At the opposite end of the branch perches an owl. You’d expect a chorus of Kumbaya, except for one minor thing — the owl is handing the girl an ax.
The girl’s expression shows a sense of hesitancy, but her free hand is reaching for the ax, nonetheless, the little twit. The owl appears stern and wise (in the way that owls always do), while the turkey, portrayed as a real dupe, his head cocked to one side, seems unsure of what’s happening.
I’m not making this up. The card is discussed in Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday by James W. Baker, who noted, “The captionless Prang card seeks to attract attention and intrigue the viewer by its impossible subject matter and impressive color printing, without context or explanation.”
No explanation needed. Everyone gets the picture. You haven’t even seen the card, and you get the idea, right?
Things weren’t much better during the Golden Age of postcards, you know, roughly 1905 to 1915. While some wholesome-as-milk images were published, the overall theme seemed to be “Got turkey?”
The more innocent depictions ranged from turkeys parading with patriotic banners to a couple of gobblers in an automobile shaped like an ear of corn. Like turkeys have opposable thumbs or can drive. Sure. Have you ever tried to clutch with a claw? They weren’t drivin’ automatics back then, I’m tellin’ ya.
Anyway, there remained a dark side to the holiday, as if Stephen King was writing the script. Turkeys were the iconic symbol of Thanksgiving, and publishers eagerly offered postcards showing us birds in bad situations. A card depicting a grateful Pilgrim family enjoying a bountiful feast around a sawbuck table might offer the sort of pleasing image a proper gentleman would mail to his favorite aunt, but it probably didn’t have the sales value of a morbid postcard illustrated with a doomed turkey. Even during that era, the shock factor meant money in the bank. When it came to selling Thanksgiving postcards, graphic images were as golden as screaming headlines on modern-day tabloids in grocery store checkout lanes: “Elvis Alive! Seen Showering with Adolescent Martian Children at Pennsylvania Singing Camp.”
The turkey became the iconic symbol of Thanksgiving. Even when the bird was about to be served, it was often illustrated with head and feathers. This card was mailed in 1908.
Baker described early 20th-century postcards as “the turkey in culinary splendor — roasting, being sliced and served, or in a preparatory state fetched by a hunter, hanging plucked in a butcher’s shop or as part of a selection of holiday provisions. As the puffed-out bird is a more attractive image than the plucked carcass, artists occasionally show fully feathered turkeys being served on platters!”
You think Mr. Ho-Ho-Ho himself ever had to put up with a fraction of the abuse that was dished out to harmless turkeys? The worst thing he ever dealt with was a little indigestion from eating too many cookies, the fat tub of lard.
But there they were, in all their holiday glory — Thanksgiving postcards with a theme so vile it would correctly be termed holiday gory. One card from the period shows Uncle Sam ready to wring a turkey’s neck. Another pictures an Indian maiden hoisting a dead turkey. Insulting minorities and birds alike, one depicts a string-bean-thin African-American man about to chop off the head of a sickly looking turkey, the critter’s neck stretched across a stump by the man’s daughter, while a rather rotund mammy watching the proceedings is accidentally whacked in the head by the inept, ax-wielding killer.
You don’t find those kinds of images when it comes to Christmas postcards. Face it, when have you ever seen Kris Kringle on a platter? Granted, had Santa shown up in the Sierra Nevadas on Christmas Eve 1846, the Donner Party might have eaten well that night. For the most part, however, postcard artists left the Jolly Old Elf with an unblemished image, while turkeys were seen as … well … turkeys. Yeah, we’ve got a reputation for being incredibly stupid. But could we get just a little respect?
Some blame the artists for what amounts to hate crimes against my kind. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday points out, “Having to compose yet another unique and attractive picture of a turkey for a postcard when hundreds if not thousands of turkey cards had already been published might strain the skills of the most original artist.”
In one of the stranger Thanksgiving images, a bald eagle stands atop a freshly killed turkey. This postcard was mailed in 1909.
Might it be, however, that the real culprit was a bloodthirsty American public? People who wouldn’t dream of drop-kicking a kitten were the same folks who bought brutal images, like one of a live turkey in a patriotic setting, the idyllic peacefulness of the image shattered by the carving knife and fork stuck deep in the bird’s back. In yet another marriage of patriotism and brutality, one postcard featured a background of purple mountain majesties, while the foreground showed a bald eagle standing atop a freshly killed turkey. Paired with each card was the line, “Thanksgiving Greetings.”
Apparently nothing says “I hope you have a great holiday” like a skewered turkey or one just slaughtered by America’s national bird.
Baste an elf on a spit above an open flame, and someone’s gonna complain, but when it comes to Thanksgiving postcards, it seems nothing was too abhorrent.
While the vile nature of the artwork on many Thanksgiving postcards faded as postals went out of fashion, the cards remain actively sought by collectors. Demand is light when compared to Halloween postcards and even Christmas (It figures!), but there remains an eager audience, all the same.
Many Thanksgiving collectors look for postcards by specific publishers and/or artists, such as the classical examples by John Winsch and Samuel Schmucker. Other collectors scoff at idealistic images, going for the graphic and the outrageous, like the one of a young Pilgrim hunter carrying a blunderbuss as he tracks a male turkey, while a rabbit sits and pleads for the bird’s life.
With the exception of most Winsch/Schmucker cards, prices for Thanksgiving postcards, even those with a vile bent, generally range from $5 to $30, less than a (gulp) turkey dinner.
It’s all relative, especially at Thanksgiving time. As for us Turkeys, though, it seems there are fewer relatives every year. But there’s no shortage of Thanksgiving cards. For that, collectors can be grateful.
"They're after us," reads the text under the image of two turkeys peeking out of a cornfield. Mailed in 1909, this Thanksgiving postcard has a bold look and definite message.
A rabbit pleads with a young Pilgrim hunter to spare the life a tom turkey in this 1910 postcard.
Doomed to become Thanksgiving dinner, a caged turkey is observed by four other birds on this postcard from 1911. The sad image is in contrast to the tranquil landscape. The message on the back reads, "I will send you a turkey but don't let him out of the pen before you are ready to eat him. Uncle Vol."
With a knife and fork stuck in its back, this turkey appears to be staggering. The strange design appears on a Thanksgiving postcard mailed in 1908.