Thanksgiving Turkey

A bit of odd lore regarding thanksgiving and its consumptive traditions, gathered from an 1898 book, Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities, by William S. Walsh (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott): 

The first thanksgiving held in North America was in 1578, in Newfoundland, and conducted by an English minister named Wolfall. The earliest record of some form of thanksgiving service within the present U.S. was in Maine in August of 1607.

The first full-day observance of thanksgiving was proclaimed by Governor Bradford, the first governor of the Massachusetts Colony, in 1621, following a successful harvest. “In practical furtherance of his proclamation, he at once set out four men in search of game. Thus early in the history of the day does our good friends the turkey make his appearance; for, successful in their quest, the four sportsmen returned, struggling under a burden of wild fowl, principally turkeys, sufficient to meet the wants of the little colony for a week.”

The author goes on to describe: “After the services followed the dinner, whose savory odors seem to have penetrated the forest’s fastnesses, for in the midst of the festivities an Indian shout was heard, and ninety friendly red men, under King Massasoit, appeared as if by magic, bearing as an addition to the feast huge haunches of venison.” Didn’t he feel ridiculous even as he wrote this?

The Thanksgiving festival became an official event in Massachusetts in 1684, then in other New England colonies. Because of the Puritans’ “hatred of Christmas as a relic of ‘Popish mummery’” (the Puritans rejected all Catholic aspects of worship that were not strictly and literally mentioned in the Bible), they also rejected what were then traditional Christmas meats like beef, boar, plum-pudding, and mince pie. The turkey (and pumpkin pie), being native to the U.S., seemed untainted by the Christmas tradition, so New Englanders largely embraced the gobble. (In the early 1700s of Rhode Island and Connecticut, however, venison or boar was the main meat rather than turkey.)

By the time of the author’s writing, a happy acceptance of Christmas traditions meant that the two meals became largely “unified”; the turkey “has driven the Christmas goose from all tables; and on the other hand the mince pie of Christmas shares the honor of completing the Thanksgiving indigestion with the pumpkin pie which once monopolized the work.”

The early origin of the Thanksgiving parade? “Another somewhat strange way of observing the holiday in New York has been, up to very recent years, to dress one self in the most fantastic costume imaginable and parade the streets…. Hundreds of companies of these motley persons, under some such name as the ‘Square Black rangeres,’ the ‘Slenderfoot Army,’ or the ‘Original Hounds,’ and dressed chiefly, as an old account says, as ‘clowns, Yankees, Irishmen, kings, washerwomen, and courtiers,’ thronged the streets all day. These ‘ragamuffin parades’ have fallen into disuse except for a few small boys, but as recently as 1885 they were in full swing….”

And lastly, a popular ode to the thanksgiving turkey that circulated during the 19th century:

Cats Who Hide

Excerpts from “The Retired Cat”

by William Cowper

A poet’s cat, sedate and grave

As poet well could wish to have,

Was much addicted to inquire

For nooks to which she might retire,

And where, secure as mouse in chink,

She might repose, or sit and think.

I’m often surprised at where I find my cats reposing: the heights of cabinets or the depths of closets; any interesting surface (a cool piece of paper, a neoprene laptop sleeve, a piping-hot digital receiver); etc. I am typing with a slumbering kitty in my lap right now (and my foot is falling asleep). What’s the oddest place you’ve found your cat sleeping?

A drawer, it chanced, at bottom lined

With linen of the softest kind,

WIth such as merchants introduce

From India, for the ladies’ use,

A drawer impending o’er the rest,

Half open in the topmost chest,

Of depth enough, and none to spare,

Invited her to slumber there;

Puss with delight beyond expression 

Survey’d the scene, and took possession. 

Recumbent at her ease, ere long,

And lull’d by her own humdrum song,

She left the cares of life behind,

     And slept as she would sleep her last,

When in came, housewifely inclined,

     The chambermaid, and shut if fast;

By no malignity impell’d,

But all unconscious whom it held.

    Awaken’d by the shock (cried Puss)

“Was ever cat attended thus?

The open drawer was left, I see,

Merely to prove a nest for me,

For soon as I was well composed, 

Then came the maid, and it was closed,

How smooth these ‘kerchiefs, and how sweet!

Oh what a delicate retreat!

I will resign myself to rest

Till Sol, declining in the west, 

Shall call to supper, when, no doubt,

Susan will come and let me out.”

Oh, my. We can see where this is headed, no? Poor silly kitty.

   The evening came, the sun descended,

And Puss remain’d still unattended.

With hunger pinch’d, and pinch’d for room,

She now presaged approaching doom,

Nor slept a single wink, or purr’d,

Conscious of jeopardy incurr’d.

    That night, by chance, the poet watching,

Heard an inexplicable scratching;

His noble heart went pit-a-pat,

And to himself he said—“What’s that?”

He drew the curtain at his side,

And forth he peep’d, but nothing spied.

Yet, by his ear directed, guess’d

Something imprison’d in the chest,

And, doubtful what, with prudent care

Resolved it should continue there.

At length a voice which well he knew,

A long and melancholy mew, 

Saluting his poetic ears,

Consoled him and dispell’d his fears:

He left his bed, he trod the floor,

He ‘gan in haste the drawers explore,

The lowest first, and without stop

The rest in order to the top.

For ‘tis a truth well known to most, 

That whatsoever thing is lost, 

We seek it, ere it come to light,

In every cranny but the right.

Forth skipp’d the cat, not now replete

As erst with airy self-conceit,

Nor in her own fond apprehension

A theme for all the world’s attention,

But modest, sober, cured of all

Her notions hyperbolical,

And wishing for a place of rest

Any thing rather than a chest.

Feline Studmuffins: Or, How to tell if your cat is H-O-T

This “studbook” from 1906 illustrates the focus on pedigrees and breeding that was extended, eventually, to cats—some years after the dog received such dubious attentions (Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate is the classic starting point for this conversation).  The Tariff Law of 1897 “excluded the better class of cats from the United States” (quoting the studbook) in protection of home-grown felines by demanding a 20% customs tax on live animals “unless pure bred and imported for breeding purposes.” Produced as a countermeasure to this tax, the book compiles a thorough register of such feline studs so that any such cat could cross the border tax-free.

This is a photo of the first kitty to have that honor:


The book’s dedication suggests an interest in advancing the “ultimate superiority” of the American domestic cat, which seems to contradict the preface’s discussion of why this domestic cat is not, ultimately, claimed as American. While the dedication is warmly patriotic,


the preface goes to some lengths to justify why the short-haired domestic cat (felis domestica) is referred to only as “the Shorthaired Cat,” with no regional or national identification: “while every cat must of necessity be born somewhere, no breed of cat is today distinctly native anywhere; because no domestic cat existed in America until comparatively recent times and no one can state whether the first introduced were long- or short-haired, no particular breed can be authoritatively claimed to have ever been native to the United States; because nativity alone can not constitute breed….”

One could only guess at the heated debates that took place. It must have been galling to have one’s cats be classified as unfortunately derivative—no “pure” American, nothing more than “alley” or “stray” or “common” as a designation for the cat one could have claimed as one’s own. Yet this book’s project—to facilitate the importation of fancy cats from foreign parts, to be bred here—was in itself a project of American-identity making (via American-cat making) by calculated breeding (eugenics): an embrace of the sad fact that American(-cat) identity was, in itself, non-existent (it would, of course, be of little benefit to the American of European-ancestry to seek to establish the Native American as inherently more American than himself). 

Here’s a late nineteenth-century advert for the U.K.’s first and oldest animal shelter, which still operates today!

The history of animal shelters is an interesting tale of gender segregation within the animal protectionism movement: of women like Mary Tealby and Caroline E. White being denied the top decision-making spots in the ‘regular’ humane movement, and taking the initiative to carve out their own niches. Associated deprecatingly with women’s ‘natural’ softness, animal shelters were initially heavily made fun of [*aside: I can’t wait until articles about dogs and cats don’t feel the need to make playful animal puns in their headlines*].   

Seems only fair to pair my previous post with a poem dedicated to the family cat (this one from The Animals’ Friend (London, 1896-7 issue).