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Cooking Up History: A Turkey Time of Year

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This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Educational Programs Specialist in the Library’s Informal Learning Office. 

A full-color sketch of a turkey, from the side;
Wild turkey; L. Prang & Co., 1874; Prints and Photographs Division

Mulling over the menu for my family Thanksgiving meal made me think more about turkey, which in turn led me to be curious about what I’d find if I searched for the word in the Library’s online collections. As always, the number of results was huge, and interestingly varied. Eliminating references to Turkey-the-country rather than turkey-the-bird still left an impressive array of options, proving how much this particular fowl has permeated the national consciousness.

Nowadays, “turkey trot” usually brings to mind a race on Thanksgiving morning, a good way for runners to burn off calories before the big meal. Years ago, a turkey trot race might have involved catching real birds. One example definitely at odds with modern humane animal welfare practices is described in a 1913 issue of the “Hopkinsville Kentuckian” newspaper.  O. G. Sprouse Co. advertised the “greatest fun-maker of the year” in which live turkeys would be released from the second floor of the store for “every man or boy with two good legs” to chase and catch for the Thanksgiving table. Onlookers were encouraged to bring children but leave dogs at home. Races with turkeys do still take place, such as this 2018 event at the Arizona State Fair – although here it’s the birds doing the chasing and being rewarded with a meal.

In the early twentieth century, a turkey trot dance was all the rage. You can listen to two examples of the accompanying ragtime music here and here. Proving that some things never change, it was popular with the young but scandalized many of their elders. Those offended included a pope and a president, as described in this Library blog post.

Old newspapers in the Library’s Chronicling America collection include other gems too. “How to Carve a Turkey” (Washington Evening Star, 1952) offers guidelines for the cook and hostess (female, of course), to show her husband—carving was a manly job. The New York Tribune included a turkey story on its children’s page in November 1919. “The Care and Feeding of Turkeys” (Chapel Hill Weekly, 1963), is full of information about the birds and includes several cautionary tales of violent turkey behavior. One attack was apparently provoked by a red shirt the victim was wearing.

Four baby turkeys walk in a line with shoes on
New-York tribune. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]), 23 Nov. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Turkeys’ dislike of the color red seems to have been common knowledge. Ben Franklin refers to it in a long letter to his daughter in 1784. Comparing a turkey to an eagle, he describes it as a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America”….  Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours… He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” Certainly a useful bird to have had around the farmyard during the War of Independence! Franklin was referring to the choice of an eagle as the symbol of the post-Revolutionary Society of the Cincinnati, but could this be the origin of the story that he would have preferred a turkey to be the U.S. national bird?  If you can decipher his handwriting you can read the whole passage in the Library’s Benjamin Franklin Papers.

Franklin did more than write about this all-American bird. His electrical experiments with kites are well known, but much less familiar are his experiments combining turkeys and electricity. This fascinating New York Public Library blog post details his investigations, and his accidental self-electrocution.

Black and white photo of a woman in a wide hat holding a turkey while seated on a hay bale
Turkeys, Jean Lyle, 10/27/26 from the National Photo Company; Prints and Photographs Division

The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs online catalog always provides a wide variety of images for any topic put into the search engine. In this case, turkeys in all kinds of situations popped up. Documenting the tradition of the President pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving, pictures show presidential birds on the way to or at the White House.  Nineteen-oh-nine seems to have been the year of turkey transportation – photographs show birds harnessed to carts pulling a boy, a girl and even Santa Claus. Pictures of people holding turkeys abound, making you wonder why people were so keen to pose with them. In many cases, the birds look pretty calm and comfortable, such as these examples from 1901 and 1930. Others, like this upside down one, must have been less so –although the girl holding it looks as if she’s having a great time. Not all the images are from years ago. An eclectic collection of poultry memorabilia from around the country proves that turkey pride is alive and well, as these photos from North Carolina, Arkansas and Virginia show.

This Thanksgiving, why not start a new holiday tradition and see what turkey trophies or references you can find?

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