Thanksgiving postcards beautiful but sketchy on facts

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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Watch this beautiful montage of Thanksgiving-themed postcards


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