Thanksgiving postcards beautiful but sketchy on facts

Collectors give thanks for Thanksgiving postcards

The history-minded collector won't find many Thanksgiving cards of interest, but Thanksgiving postcards are easy to find, colorful, and reasonably priced, for the most part. Almost every publisher in the early 1900s issued greetings for the holiday, but do they tell anything about the Pilgrims they commemorate?

Thanksgiving postcards tend to be more cute than beautiful, but this 1910 greeting published by John Winsch is the exception. It's also a reminder that the Pilgrims owed much to help from Native Americans. All photos courtesy Barbara Andrews.

Thanksgiving postcards are easy to find, colorful, and reasonably priced, for the most part. Almost every publisher in the early 1900s issued greetings for the holiday, but do they tell anything about the Pilgrims they commemorate?

The history behind Thanksgiving is pretty well known. A small group landed on Plymouth Rock in December 1620 and hoped to found a colony with freedom to practice religion as they pleased.

They’re not to be confused with the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony and Salem witchcraft fame. In later years, there was some hostility between the two groups. The Pilgrims’ first winter was horrible. Half of the 102 who landed died, including 10 of 17 male heads of households. But in spite of the hardships and death, they got lucky in one important way. Instead of meeting hostile natives, they were greeted by Samoset, an Abnaki who had picked up some English from fishing boat captains. (Remember, the Pilgrims were not the first to journey to the New World.) The initial contact with Native Americans led to help from Squanto, who had been to England and mastered their language. Most important of all, the Patuxets leader, Massasoit, initiated a peace treaty with the newcomers.

Thanks to the help of the Native Americans and a bountiful harvest in 1621, the Pilgrims’ future looked better. They held a feast to give thanks to God for their deliverance. The Virginian colonists had held a similar harvest celebration, and it was common practice in many European communities. In fact, any group that survived a year in the New World had reason to be thankful.

The idea of a Thanksgiving Day spread throughout the colonies. Colonial governors issued annual proclamations, and President Washington declared a general day of thanksgiving in 1789. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, pressured presidents for 20 years to establish Thanksgiving as an annual holiday. In 1863, President Lincoln appointed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. It was observed on this date until 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed it to the fourth (but not final) Thursday in November.

Postcard makers liked to focus on one particular aspect of the holiday: a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s very likely that wild turkeys were among the fowl hunted in 1621, but the birds tended to push the Pilgrims into the background on early 20th century postcards. When Pilgrims are pictured, they’re shown in dark, plain costumes with bland expressions that reveal little of the personalities that dared the new world.

The history-minded collector won’t find many Thanksgiving cards of interest, but Massachusetts remembered its founding fathers and commemorated them on postcards sold over the last hundred years.

They’re not likely to be listed in a “Pilgrim” category in a show dealer’s stock, but they’re out there. Tracing the footsteps of people who lived nearly 400 years ago is a challenge, but it can add an extra dimension to the modern holiday devoted to turkey and football. ?

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More Images:

This is Mayflower II, built in 1957 as a gift from Britain to
America. It would be impossible to exaggerate what an unpleasant voyage the Pilgrims experienced on the original ship, but a year later, they celebrated their survival with hope for the future.
This 1910 embossed postcard has an unusual take on Thanksgiving. It shows Uncle Sam about to partake of a traditional turkey. Pilgrims in the background carry a wild fowl, a reminder of the reason for the holiday. It emphasizes that Thanksgiving as it's celebrated here is a uniquely American celebration, although the plum pudding on the lower left is a reminder of the colonists' English origin.
Of all the legends about the Pilgrims, the love triangle among John Alden, Miles Standish and Pricilla Mullins is the most romantic. Alden wasn't one of the "Saints," as the Pilgrims called themselves. Rather, he was a "Stranger," one of the 66 others on the Mayflower. He may have signed on to follow his lady love, but he stayed to play an important part in the colony. He was the last survivor of the Mayflower when he died in 1687. And yes, he did get the girl. This is an advertising postcard for Walk-Over Shoes.
Miles Standish built this house in 1666. Although this isn't a
Thanksgiving postcard, it does make one of the historical figures seem more real. The card was published by the Rotograph Co., copyright 1905.
A sarcophagus commemorates the 104 Mayflower passengers who died the first year. Older examples exist, but the names are more legible on this linen one.
The Mayflower compact is one of the great documents in American history. It unified the Saints and the strangers, acknowledged their allegiance to the English king, and more importantly, set the stage for rule by law and the beginnings of a democratic society in the New World.

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