Prior to President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation, Thanksgiving was not yet part of the national calendar. At this time, each state’s governor determined when (or if) Thanksgiving Day would be celebrated. Since 1863 every President has proclaimed an annual national Thanksgiving Day. However, in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday in November to extend the Christmas shopping season. Two years later, this unpopular move inspired Congress to permanently fix the date to the fourth Thursday of November.
After coming down from the sugar-induced Halloween holiday with its overabundance of candy, costumes, and vivid imagery of all things orange and black, most people take a breather in preparation for a frenzied season of decorating, baking, shopping, wrapping, visiting, etc., which we know as Christmas.
Unfortunately, Thanksgiving is buffeted by these two larger-than-life celebratory events and in most cases overlooked when it comes to decorating. Although Tom Turkey is the star of the day, there are some wonderful vintage pieces that can enhance your family-day gathering and give this short-lived holiday its just due.
The dining room table is typically the platform in which to showcase your best accoutrement on this gathering day of family and friends. Presentation, as any Martha Stewart aficionado will tell you, is everything. Not only must the turkey come to the table in a beautiful walnut-hued skin, he must also look succulent and juicy.
Circa 1906 Wedgwood Flow Blue Tom Turkey platter would make any fowl the center of attention
Of course, no simple platter will do for his mode of transportation… this is the day you bring out your best china. Wouldn’t Tom look absolutely regal perched atop a circa 1906 Wedgwood Flow Blue Tom Turkey oval platter?
The piece I have in mind measures a generous 17 inches by 13 1/4 inches that will accommodate any fowl up to an antacid-popping 35 pounds! Of course, condiments deserve their own place of honor at the table and I can’t imagine a more suitable container for the cranberries than a vintage L. E. Smith glass covered turkey dish.
Large glass-covered turkey dish keeping an eye on the matching miniature salt.
The one shown in the photo here is the larger brother of the more commonly seen 6” dishes; this pullet stands a proud 7” high and easily holds double the servings of his smaller friends. An added elegant touch is the matching salts, which, measuring approximately 3 inches high, could surely double as nut cups and/or candy dishes. Please note: there are reproductions of these pieces that are readily available.
Another decorating (albeit pricey) detail for the table would be a turkey-shaped candy container at each place setting. As any holiday collector knows, Germany was the premier producer of holiday candy containers. The attention to detail is what makes these little treasures stand far above their competitors (namely, the American and Japanese). The variety of Halloween and Christmas pieces are absolutely breathtaking, both in their artistry and value.
A rafter (that’s right!) of German turkey candy containers dating from the 1920s-1930s.
Although the German turkeys are not as popular as their other two holiday cousins, they still hold their own. The number of Tom Turkey candy containers is quite prolific, but for some reason the hens are hard to come by and, consequently, avidly sought after by collectors. Any embellishment to the candy container (i.e., a turkey sitting on a tree stump, a nodder turkey, etc.) will increase the piece’s value.
What would a large family get-together be without the children’s table? Theirs can be as festive as the adult table, but with things more in tune with their young decorative tastes.
A section from a Dennison Co. Thanksgiving crepe paper tablecloth.
One of the premier producers of holiday table/party decorations in the 1900s was the Dennison Company originally located in Framingham, Mass. Amongst collectors, the Dennison Co.’s crepe paper holiday tablecloths and borders are breathtaking in their various designs and colors. The classic 1930s panel (seen here) highlights Tom in his autumnal surroundings. As you can see, the colors are still quite vivid – hard to believe this piece is more than 70 years old.
A few samples from the Gurley Candle Co. holiday collection.
Another family table-setting tradition that will stir up memories in any Baby Boomer’s heart comes from the Gurley Candle Company. Known for its production of diminutive holiday candles, these additions will add a whimsical decorative note to the table with a variety of Thanksgiving-themed candles: Pilgrims, Indians, Turkeys, and a quite rare Mayflower ship. Dating from the 1950-60s, these items were manufactured in such abundance that they’re easily found at flea markets and yard sales for just pennies.
Place cards for the table could be fashioned from vintage Thanksgiving penny postcards dating from the early 1900s. My favorite is one that was mailed to my Great Aunt Rose from her sister-in-law in 1919. Four gobblers are poised above a song sheet singing:
“Thanks to him who spared our living
We’re here, we’re here, till next Thanksgiving!”
An example of an early 1900s Thanksgiving penny postcard.
Although displayed yearly at our table, it still elicits many smiles and warm thoughts of family members, past and present.
As someone who changes the artwork in our home according to the season, it surprised me as to how much material is available for the Thanksgiving holiday. At this time of year, nothing conjures up the image of family, hearth and home better than the seasonal prints of Currier & Ives. “Home To Thanksgiving”, a beautifully hand-colored lithograph published in 1867, hangs above our fireplace in our dining room. It never fails to garner compliments each year.
A holiday classic: the 1867 Currier & Ives litho, Home To Thanksgiving.
On a more whimsical note, an early illustration of a young boy standing in the farmyard surveying his future holiday dinner is the work of Johanna Bernhardina Midderigh-Bokhurst (1880-1972), an illustrator of The Hague, Netherlands. It is purely charming in its simplicity.
A whimsical print by J. B. Midderigh-Bokhurst.
In the same vein, the Nov. 20, 1931 issue of LIFE Magazine casts a more humorous eye on this November holiday and the plight of Mr. Gobbler. The artist for this piece was Heier. To be sure this is an eclectic grouping, but guaranteed to elicit some emotion for at least one piece, if not all.
Hopefully these few samplings will whet your collecting appetite and best of all, they won’t add any calories like that second slice of pumpkin pie you’ve been contemplating.