EAGLE VERSUS TURKEY: THANKSGIVING HOLIDAY IMAGES FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION

As the work week draws to an early close on account of tomorrow’s holiday, I thought I’d sign off this week with some thoughts on Thanksgiving Day and the turkey, and some relevant images from the Wolfsonian library collection.

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ILLUSTRATION BY CHARLES TURZAK (1899-1986), FROM HIS

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: A BIOGRAPHY IN WOOD CUTS

THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU, MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

In a letter that he penned in January 1784, founding father and ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin wrote his daughter “Sally,” stating that:

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…

…For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America, the first of the Species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and serv’d up at the Wedding Table of Charles the IXth. He is besides 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.

Much as I find Franklin’s argument enticing, I have to cite his own evidence in disagreeing with his conclusion that the turkey would have made a better emblem than the eagle: it’s hard to respect a country whose national symbol is “serv’d up” at the table, as is hilariously spoofed in a Thanksgiving pageant organized by camp counselors in the 1993 comedy, Addams Family Values.

Naturally, many of the early rag books designed for children in the Wolfsonian collection also support the notion that turkeys are valued more as meal than as symbol. Far from depicting the turkey as Franklin’s “Bird of Courage,” a Saalfield’s Muslin alphabet book published in 1904 depicts a “gobbler” being chased away by an elderly grandmother.

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GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

Another cloth book issued by the same publishers four years later also demonstrated that most Americans were accustomed to thinking of turkeys as particularly “gorgeous” when “roasted nice and brown.”

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GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

In the midst of the hunger of the Great Depression, there were a number of children’s books produced depicting the original Thanksgiving feast that followed the difficult winter and starving time endured by the pilgrim settlers. Grosset & Dunlap, for example, published Donald Culross Peattie’s The Story of America with color illustrations of Indians and colonists by Naomi Averill.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

In a similar vein, a couple famous for introducing folk and modernist themes into American children’s books, Maud and Miska Petersham also wrote and illustrated An American ABC, more explicitly memorializing the event that gave rise to our Thanksgiving holiday.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA

Under the letter “A,” the author/illustrators left no doubt as to why they believed the American bald eagle to be a perfect emblem for America.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA

In trying to combat hunger during the Depression years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a number of federal work projects designed to provide Americans with the jobs where the private sector had failed. Under his New Deal Administration, for the first time in U.S. history, the federal government-funded arts projects as well, to ensure that the nation did not starve either culturally or artistically in those hard times, and that talented artists were not reduced to literal starvation. Helen Johnson was one of the artists who availed herself of the opportunity for work, writing verses and carving print designs from linoleum blocks for a Farm Book published under the auspices of the Iowa Craft Project of the Work Projects Administration. Here is her beautiful illustration of a turkey of which Ben Franklin would have been proud.

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THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU, MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

~ by "The Chief" on November 27, 2013.

One Response to “EAGLE VERSUS TURKEY: THANKSGIVING HOLIDAY IMAGES FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION”

  1. Thanks for this blog. Do not eat turkey.

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