Happy Thanksgiving!: Postcards from Special Collections

Though glittering red and green decorations and lights are already on display in the stores and holiday music is filling up the airwaves (and our iPods), the Christmas season is still weeks away.  It seems like between Halloween and the winter holiday season, Thanksgiving is only a brief stop on our festive march to New Year’s Eve.  There are hardly any songs about the holiday and, let’s face it, the turkey isn’t very marketable; it’s not as scary as a jack-o-lantern or as jolly as Santa Claus and his elves.

Perhaps Thanksgiving is often an afterthought because it’s always been difficult to commercialize and that’s kind of what Americans do best!  There are, of course, wonderful shared national traditions surrounding Thanksgiving: football, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the headaches of holiday travel, and the sleep-inducing feasting with family and friends.  Hallmark still makes Thanksgiving greeting cards and I’m sure there’ll be some Thanksgiving images and greetings circulating in social media this week.

The imagery of Thanksgiving has always been about giving thanks for abundance: the abundance of a fruitful harvest and the abundance of joy and blessings as family gather together for Thanksgiving meals.  I thought that this week would be a nice time to highlight some early traditional images of the holiday from our postcard collections.

Postcard collecting is still a popular pastime among hobbyists and you’ll see bins of postcards at many an antique shop.  The picture postcard reached the zenith of its popularity in the period between the turn of the century and the first World War.  Thanks to advances in color printing processes and in domestic and international mail services, it was an inexpensive and aesthetically pleasing form of communication for the general public.

There are several collections of postcards in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections, including the Charles Shields Postcard and Trade Card Collections, the Clyde N. Bowden Postcard Collection, and the Charles Murphy Collection featuring postcards on public conveyances and railroads from around the world.  Among the subjects depicted in the estimated 500,000 postcards in these combined collections are geographic locations and architectural landmarks throughout the US and the world and the traditional greeting card images of people, animals, flowers, and holiday and seasonal images.  We’ve digitized our trade card collection and initial plans have been made to create a digital collection of our postcards, as well.

In looking through the hundreds of Thanksgiving themed postcards, I found many expected depictions of turkeys and cornucopias, pilgrims and Native Americans, most dated between 1900 and 1920.  What I was surprised by were the many comical depictions of children leading turkeys to slaughter!  There were also many patriotic images of flags and turkeys, which made me think of Benjamin Franklin’s famous suggestion to his daughter in a letter dated 1784 that the turkey was a “more respectable Bird” than the bald eagle, in his opinion “a Bird of bad moral Character”.

One of my personal favorites is this early depiction of the association between football and the holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Kimberly Tully
Special Collections Librarian