My younger self shares some things in common with turkeys. The domestic ones, frequently basted around this time of year, are often described as trusting but more commonly seen as gullible. Likewise, when I was a child, my family had a knack for capitalizing on my trusting nature and propensity to share stories.
One Thanksgiving, when I was nine years old, our German Shepherd suddenly swiped our turkey right off the table. The room filled with shock and horror, but my father, known for his humor, jokingly announced that we would make our dog the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving dinner instead. And, being naturally trusting, I fell for it.
It wasn’t until my teacher called the following week that my parents realized the extent of my belief. Looking back, this Thanksgiving tale serves as both a humorous memory and a reminder to approach the holiday with a spirit of trust and humor. It also underscores the significance of recording these memories through written words, ensuring we can preserve and share them with those we cherish for generations. This practice is not a recent innovation, as the tradition of documenting Thanksgiving memories dates back many years.
Early 20th Century (1900–1920)
The origins of Thanksgiving trace back to 1621 when the Pilgrims commemorated their inaugural harvest in the “New World.” Historical documentation, including diaries, letters, and newspapers, serve as primary sources, offering insights into the earliest records of seasonal activities and the communal spirit that characterized the celebration. Furthermore, in 1873, a novel development unfolded as the United States Postal Service introduced the inaugural penny postcard.
Soon after, a noteworthy trend emerged as artists seized this opportunity, crafting postcards that revolved around the wholesome autumnal holiday. The earliest Thanksgiving postcards depicted scenes featuring Pilgrim families and Native Americans, reflecting society’s captivation with historical roots and the Pilgrims’ pivotal role in shaping Thanksgiving traditions. Over the century, these postcards evolved to showcase autumnal landscapes adorned with turkeys and symbols of national pride, marking Thanksgiving’s evolution into a widely acknowledged and celebrated holiday.
A Reflection of Patriotic Sentiment
In the early 1900s, American flags on Thanksgiving postcards reflected the patriotic sentiment during that time. The early 20th century was marked by a solid national identity and pride, especially following significant events like the Spanish-American War. This era saw a surge in patriotism and a celebration of American values. Patriotic themes were illustrated on cards, which brought about the inclusion of the American flag on Thanksgiving postcards. The country was emerging from a period of growth and expansion, and there was an ardent desire to showcase a united and strong America.
Amid the economic challenges many faced during the 1930s, postcards depicted scenes of humble family gatherings, highlighting the enduring spirit of gratitude amid the Great Depression. With unprecedented unemployment rates, individuals struggle to put food on the table, let alone a Thanksgiving feast. The traditional Thanksgiving turkey gave way to unconventional alternatives, like roasted hen. These atypical culinary choices from the era were documented on specific postcards, adding an unusual touch to the historical narrative.
Remarkably, in 1939, during the waning years of the Great Depression, business leaders predicted that Americans would delay holiday shopping until after Thanksgiving. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Thanksgiving holiday to the second-to-last Thursday of the month, diverging from its traditional placement on the last Thursday. This abrupt change disrupted the plans of millions, sparking widespread uproar and protest. The impulsive decision resulted in some states maintaining the original Thanksgiving date, while others adopted the November 23 holiday, colloquially termed “Franksgiving” in honor of Roosevelt. Two years later, in 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday the legal Thanksgiving Day. This historical context is essential when examining Thanksgiving-related postcards and documents, as the date may appear incorrect due to this past adjustment.
One month later, the United States officially entered World War II, and prevalent themes of patriotism and support for the troops reemerged. Postcards from this era often depicted the American flag alongside a Thanksgiving spread, emphasizing the intertwining of the holiday with national unity.
Mid-20th Century (1950s–1960s)
During the Great Depression and World War II, handmade centerpieces featuring foliage, candles, and other seasonal elements became popular Thanksgiving collectibles, focusing on simplicity and resourcefulness. The mid-20th century also brought a surge in collectible Thanksgiving dinnerware, including plates, platters, and serving dishes adorned with turkey motifs and autumnal designs. While specific designers can vary in popularity and availability, here are some notable names associated with dinnerware from that era:
- Franciscan Ceramics, renowned for its hand-printed designs and earthly colors, had popular tableware lines like Desert Rose and Apple during this period. Large Desert Rose sets can command hundreds of dollars, while individual pieces are worth much less.
- Homer Laughlin China Company, a stalwart in the industry, maintained the allure of Fiesta Ware, a vibrant and versatile line introduced in the 1930s. In 2007, this Homer Laughlin rhythm Thanksgiving turkey platter sold for $29.99.
- Russel Wright, celebrated for his modern and functional designs, left an indelible mark with American Modern, a dinnerware line characterized by sleek and simple shades. In 2019, this vintage Simtex Russel Wright Thanksgiving tablecloth sold for $84.99 on eBay.
- Syracuse China is known for its durable and classic designs. A notable series is the Harvest Time series, which features autumnal motifs that were popular in the 1950s. In 2017, this vintage Syracuse China charger plate sold for $21.00 on eBay.
- Royal China produced a variety of designs, running from traditional to modern. The Currier and Ives series features nostalgic winter scenes and Star Glow.
- Metlox is known for its casual and colorful designs. For example, California Ivy and Sculptured Grape are famous series with nature-inspired motifs. While large sets can command higher prices, it is essential to note that the quality and market demand can influence the selling price for these pieces.
Late 20th Century (1970s–1990s)
The 1970s and 1980s were transformative decades marked by dynamic cultural, political, and social shifts. Thanksgiving celebrations remained rooted in tradition throughout these shifts, with families gathering for the festive metals. During this era, there was a surge in popularity surrounding decorative harvest baskets and cornucopias, turning them into coveted collectibles. These items, symbolizing abundance and the harvest season, become a focal point of Thanksgiving décor. Designers and brands contributed distinctive styles, incorporating both traditional and contemporary elements.
Longaberger, renowned for its high-quality handcrafted baskets, showcased intricate weavers and attention to detail. At the same time, Fitz and Floyd brought artistic flair to the scene with hand-painted harvest-themed pieces.
The journey of the Thanksgiving timeline, told by collectibles, weaves a tapestry of traditions and creativity that continues to shape how we celebrate and remember this cherished holiday. Whether you’re searching for Thanksgiving collectibles due to an appreciation for the fascinating history or a desire to recreate an authentic vintage Thanksgiving celebration, there’s a wealth of resources available to unearth your next treasure. Explore local antique shops and vintage stores, where you might discover a curated selection of vintage postcards, dinnerware, and décor. Additionally, don’t overlook online marketplaces; eBay and Etsy are thriving marketplaces connecting collectors and sellers. However, my preferred method of treasure hunting involves visiting the thrift store. Although it may require more exploration, stumbling upon a hidden gem excites the hunt. Regardless of your method or exploration, I wish you well. As always, happy hunting!
Want more? Journey through the history of Halloween through vintage postcards celebrating the holiday.
Sarah Seippel is a freelance writer and finds much of her inspiration in her father’s unique collections. In her free time, she enjoys hunting down the best cup of coffee and pursuing for vintage deals.