Historic Thanksgiving Postcards Spotlight Festive Traditions

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Reviving A Long-Lost Art Form

By Michael Perlman

Historians believe that the first Thanksgiving meal dates to 1621, where 53 Mayflower pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Native Americans at Plymouth shared an autumn feast for three days. In 1873, the first American picture postcard was designed, and in the early 20th century, Thanksgiving traditions came alive through highly stylized and vibrant hand-colored lithograph postcards.    

Today, a significant number of postcards of the late 19th and early to mid-20th century are collectible works of art that often exist in good to excellent condition. Some feature handwritten messages and one-cent and two-cent stamps. Deltiology is the collection and study of postcards, which derives from “deltion,” a Greek term for a writing tablet or letter. Therefore, a postcard collector is known as a deltiologist. Several decades ago, postcards could be found at a corner pharmacy, but today they can be purchased at postcard shows and estate sales or on eBay. Amazingly, the topics represent nearly every theme imaginable, capturing the history of hometowns and hobbies to holidays. As a deltiologist, it is timely to explore the artistry and history associated with Thanksgiving postcards by pinpointing highlights.

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Mechanical postcards are most interactive and were cleverly engineered, which is why such postcards continue to operate approximately 120 years later. In one postcard, a collector lightly presses the stomach of one of two elaborately illustrated turkeys, and it produces a “gobble.” Steps away is the Hudson River with lustrous rays from the Statue of Liberty in the background. The application of color evokes the feeling of a watercolor painting. 

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The “Macy Color Views of New York” postcard series captures the magic of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as of 1939, a year that is more recent than nearly all Thanksgiving postcards. This chrome postcard features a toy soldier float making its way alongside the Columbus Monument. A caption reads, “Annual mile pageant of giant helium-filled balloons escorts Santa Claus to the world’s largest store at Broadway & 34th Street.” Since postcards are the catalyst for historic research, the viewer learns that the Macy’s Parade originated in 1924 and once featured animals from the Central Park Zoo. Then floats were introduced and would be released into the air with a return address. If one was fortunate enough to find it after the parade, they were a prize winner.  

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The earliest postcards originated overseas, such as in Germany and Holland, prior to the trade being pursued in America in the early 20th century. A postcard, printed in Saxony, depicts a mother and daughter in Victorian style pink and white dresses and ribbon hats, and riding in a turkey-drawn carriage. The forested scene features a lake and is printed in saturated colors. 

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Sometimes a menu was brought to the recipient; not always presenting food, but a selection of blessings. One such Gilded Age style postcard that is embossed in a menu series features a pilgrim boy and girl, shoulder to shoulder, holding up graceful desserts, while a turkey, pumpkin and leaves add much character. The entrée menu reads: “Health a la Wealth, Prosperity, Garnished with Joys, True Love, Happiness, Long Life.” Grapes are depicted on the menu as a symbol of abundance and good fortune. This circa 1910 series was produced by New York publisher E. Nash. 

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A similar themed postcard features older male and female pilgrims with symbolic imagery that complements the saying, “The gifts of nature are worth their weight in gold.” The pumpkin that is being weighed in addition to the turkey is accentuated with colorful glitter, a technique occasionally applied to postcards. This card was published by the International Art Publishing Company that pertained to New York and Berlin, and was printed in Germany. The postcard was signed by artist Alein Muller.

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An autumn color scheme is beautifully expressed on a Thanksgiving Day on the farm postcard featuring young adult pilgrims walking not far from a teepee. The border is complemented by a cornfield theme, a sunrise, and a pumpkin. It was produced by a most famous publisher, Raphael Tuck & Sons as part of the Thanksgiving Day Postcards Series.

This firm was founded in London by Raphael Tuck (1821 – 1900) and operated from 1866 to 1959. Other locations included Paris, Berlin, Montreal, and 298 Broadway and 122 – 124 Fifth Avenue. In 1894, his son, Adolph Tuck, created their first picture postcard. This prominent publisher was considered “Art publishers to their majesties the king and queen,” as noted on the reverse of their postcards, since Queen Victoria granted them the Royal Warrant of Appointment in 1883. These postcards are among the most desirable by collectors.

Born in South Columbia, New York, Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle (1865 – 1934) would be recognized as a significant illustrator and commercial artist, and is regarded as a most prolific postcard and greeting card artist of her era. She was the great-granddaughter of Major Dennis Clapsaddle, a Revolutionary War hero. During the golden age of souvenir postcards, from 1898 to 1915, artistic designs were highly prized, and she is credited with over 3,000 designs. Her residences included Manhattan’s Prince George Hotel and 125 East 30th Street. She designed postcards for International Art Publishing Company, Wolf Publishing Company, and Raphael Tuck & Sons.  

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In one of Clapsaddle’s signed postcards, a pilgrim woman bakes a pie. A poem read, “Busy hands make a happy heart, May Health and Wealth their share impart.” “Welcome Thanksgiving” signifies unique calligraphy.

John Winsch (1865 – 1923) of Stapleton, New York was co-manager of Art Lithographic Publishing Company. He copyrighted his artist signed greeting cards, where many were published in sets, and produced approximately 4,000 designs between 1910 and 1915. He was acclaimed for his Thanksgiving and Halloween postcards. He also used European artists, who worked with his German printers.

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In one Winsch postcard, a young pilgrim couple is featured in a black and white photograph on the field. That is offset by the hand-colored collage-like imagery of leaves and acorns, as well as a grandfather clock and chair. Some of Winsch’s cards feature poetry such as that of Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819 – 1881), an American novelist, poet, and a founder of Scribner’s Monthly. This postcard reads, “It is the Puritan’s Thanksgiving Eve; In dear New England since the fathers slept, The sweetest holiday of all the year.” Winsch postcards, with their poetry, sometimes evoke Edwardian romanticism.

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The Alcan Moss Company, an engraver based in Manhattan, produced the National Bird Series. One largely gold and green postcard emphasizes the unity and festivities between pilgrim and Indian children as they are holding hands and dancing in a circle around a giant pumpkin.

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A postcard depicting the pilgrims’ landing features the Mayflower and a frame of fruits, which can also be found between a poem. It reads, “What I am thankful for to-day, For strength to walk on the world’s highway, For a hope to hold and a work to do, And the blessing of a friend like you.” In elegant typography, “Post Card” is surrounded by a Colonial feather-like design, and below reads, “Whitney Made Worcester, Mass.” A principal was George Clarkson Whitney (1842 – 1915) of a company that became a notable publisher of holiday cards on specialty papers and an important postcard greetings publisher. His motto was “Industry, punctuality and Christianity.” His son Warren and grandson George later assumed operations, but in 1942, the firm shuttered.


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