American holiday began more than 400 years ago

My memories of family Thanksgivings were an anticipated ritual that began with a blessing, then centered around the carving of a beautifully roasted turkey and family members passing bowls of fragrant stuffing, vegetables, gravy and jellied cranberries. It ended with pumpkin pie. After all wasn’t this the way artist Norman Rockwell had painted it in his famous 1942, Saturday Evening Post picture? Our places at the table were identified with a cardboard figure of a Pilgrim dressed in black and our name. Sounds just like what we had learned in school about the Pilgrims first Thanksgiving. But, was that the way it really was as depicted in a 19th century painting we were all familiar with?

Over the years the symbols of Thanksgiving have been transferred to a variety of antique and collectible vintage objects. Some are affordable while others can be priced at several hundred dollars.

In the late 19th century another Thanksgiving tradition became popular: sending postcards picturing various images. There were the Pilgrims dressed in black and Native Americans sharing food. Or, there were drawings of Plymouth Rock where the Pilgrims supposedly, first came ashore. During the late 19th century, one of the most cherished objects was the platter with the turkey image. That was only the beginning with complete dinner sets consisting of many serving pieces with transfer print images of a turkey and borders of harvest subjects. They were usually made of modestly priced ceramics often imported from Germany and England, besides being manufactured by America’s developing ceramics factories.

Considered an iconic rendition of the pilgrim thanksgiving is the painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930). The original hangs in the Library of Congress. The painting came to be considered the way the event took place.

Fast forward to the 20th century. Famed illustrator Steven Dohanos created a series of five Thanksgiving theme sterling silver plates for Franklin Mint, from 1972 to 1976.

The turkey platter, being the center of importance, was often made in silver and other metals. One example is the aluminum turkey platter made by Wendell Forge Aluminum Company that has never stopped being made since its first introduction in the 1940s.

If you can afford it there is a vintage sterling silver turkey motif serving spoon for the dressing. Made by Tiffany & Co., the current dealer cost is $475.   

Now, for the facts that some of my research turned up on the History News Network, written by Timothy Walch.

Historically the Pilgrims didn’t land at Plymouth, but at Cape Cod, near Provincetown, on November 1620. Another fact, the Pilgrims only wore black garments on Sunday. Then there is the matter of their meeting with native American chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe and 90 of his men. They are pictured wearing loin cloths. It was a bit chilly for such garments in November. Another fact that my research turned up: the pilgrims never called themselves pilgrims. They were separatists. The term “pilgrim” didn’t come into use until around 1880.

Most of the artwork available shows the feast being set on tables and served on plates. Historians differ on how the feast was actually handled. Some say the pilgrims didn’t have serving utensils and ate with their hands.

What was the actual menu? Venison, seafood, and dried fruits and vegetables. Pumpkin was served but not pumpkin pie. There were wild turkeys but historical records don’t say for sure if they were served.

For 200 years Thanksgiving was strictly a New England holiday. It was in 1789 George Washington proclaimed November 26, as the first National Thanksgiving day. However, in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln changed the date to the last Thursday in November. That has not changed, except for 1939 when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of the month in an attempt to boost the Christmas shopping season. The trend did not last and Thanksgiving returned to the fourth Thursday of the month.

There are a variety of items available for collectors and most are reasonably priced. One of the most popular is the candles in the forms of pilgrim men and women made by the Gurley Novelty Company. The business began in 1939 in Buffalo, New York. They are now being made in Vermont.

Table linens, both as printed cotton and lace were made from the 1920s on. A beautiful version referred to as “Quaker Lace “pictures the ship “Mayflower” and figures of the pilgrims walking on the land.

Aluminum turkey platters made by Wendell August Forge are still being made. Vintage versions still turn up on EBay. The new trays can cost over $200.

Whether you want to decorate your table with old or new Thanksgiving objects or begin a collection there are plenty of affordable opportunities. There are also books and price guides on the subject. Check out the many online historical references on the subject and decide what is fact or fiction.