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Crafting from the Collections: Ideas for the Thanksgiving Table

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Family eating dinner together, black and white photo
Untitled photo, 1942; Gordon Parks, photographer; Prints & Photographs Division

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

As the holiday meal is the highlight of Thanksgiving Day, it’s fitting to enjoy it in a suitably festive setting. Inspired by the squirrels scampering around prepping for winter, I’m planning to scavenge for leaves, branches and other natural materials to use for my holiday decorating. With a few basic art supplies and – of course – inspiration from the Library’s amazing collections, a lovely Thanksgiving tablescape should come together nicely.  It’s also an ideal way to involve younger family members and anyone else willing to pitch in with scissors, glue and imagination.

The Library’s Prints and Photographs Division and Chronicling America, a huge collection of digitized newspapers, are good places to look for ideas. As the newspaper resources are so vast it’s smart to narrow your search by date. Be aware that you may be raising your eyebrows somewhat, as along with some evergreen craft ideas, many articles reflect attitudes that are quite dated today.

A black and white outline of a turkey made from a pinecone and leaves
Pinecone turkeys from Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 15 Nov. 1936. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
A showpiece centerpiece always looks special. Flowers are usual here, as outlined in Evening Star pieces from 1952 and 1955. The second article suggests adding vegetables too. If you choose ones that aren’t commonly thought of as decorative you can really increase the wow factor of the arrangement. Carrots and beets with their leaves attached, Brussels sprouts on stalks, and the more bizarre-looking squashes are all good candidates. They’re cheaper than flowers and you can eat them afterwards! Add some leaves and small branches – collecting these is a great job for kids – and there may be so much foliage and embellishment down the length of the table that there’s barely any room for the food. Save some space for these cute homemade pinecone turkeys, another child-friendly activity from a 1936 newspaper (see the bottom right corner of the page–supplies needed are pinecones, fall leaves, pipe cleaner, glue, buttons, paint, scissors, and cardboard).

You might want to use decorative place cards at your table. The little extra touch they bring makes the meal even more celebratory. Making decorative seating cards is another project that kids of all ages can do. All you need is paper or cardstock, glue, scissors, pens or pencils and a collection of images printed from the Library’s website. The Prints and Photographs Division data base is enormous, so to come up with a suitable Thanksgiving selection, try searching for key words. “Leaves,” “fall,” and “turkey” are good ones; as are any others that seem particularly autumnal or holiday-related. To ensure you abide by copyright regulations, be sure to check that “no known restrictions” shows up in the “Rights Advisory” section in the information below each picture. The Library’s Free to Use and Reuse Sets are a great resource. There are two specifically geared to Thanksgiving and football.

Once you have identified and edited pictures, print them out. The easiest way to make place cards is simply to cut out the illustration and stick it to a folded piece of paper or card.  Leave a border for a name or write directly on the image itself. It’s fun to match the pictures to your guests – football ones for the sports fans in your group, fall foliage for nature lovers, pies for foodies, etc. If describing what everyone’s appreciated in the past year is part of your holiday tradition, why not add a twist this year? Make some larger 4×6 folded cards in the same way as the place cards. Encourage each person at your Thanksgiving table to write down what they are thankful for. During the meal, they can read out their own card, or pass them out and share each other’s. Besides being a little different, doing it this way allows time to reflect and come up with a more thoughtful response, rather than hurriedly thinking up something on the spot as your turn rapidly approaches.

Napkin rings add one final touch to a holiday table, whether you use heirloom linens, paper napkins or anything in between. Go for a rustic look with string or cloth strips, decorated with twigs and leaves, or make this suggestion from a 1954 newspaper article. The same idea would also work with Library images if you prefer to use those.

To paraphrase the 1936 Evening Star, Thanksgiving hosts “must have set the stage for one of the most complete feasts of the year.” With gathered foliage, fruit, flower and veggie centerpieces, and charming homemade table decorations inspired by the Library’s collections, it will be a beautiful one too. The Minerva’s Kaleidoscope team wishes you a very happy Thanksgiving!

Decorations for the Thanksgiving table using images from the Library’s collections, made by the author.

The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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