The story of Thanksgiving comes to life on postage stamps

Nov 26, 2012, 5 AM

By Janet Klug

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday. You gather the family, eat too much, watch football and fall asleep. But there is more to Thanksgiving than that, and maybe some of what it was designed to do for all of us has been lost in the food and football.

The good news is that Thanksgiving is well documented by the stamps that come to life in our albums. We can use them to remind us of the history of the holiday and to serve as visual aids when we explain the holiday to the youngest who share our turkey banquet.

In the United States the giving of thanks for a successful harvest is said to have been brought to the New World by a small group of British Protestants who called themselves Puritans.

The Puritans believed the Church of England needed to be reformed. When the dissent led to dispute, some Puritans undertook a pilgrimage to the New World to escape religious persecution in England. The pilgrims transited the Atlantic Ocean on the ship Mayflower and made land in Massachusetts in November 1620.

The 1920 1¢ stamp pictured at top in Figure 1 shows the Mayflower approaching what is now the state of Massachusetts (Scott 548). The 6¢ stamp issued in 1970, shown at the bottom of Figure 1, illustrates the landing of the pilgrims (1420).

The story of the pilgrims and their establishment of a plantation in what is now Plymouth, Mass., has become idealized and sanitized, but this is where the Thanksgiving story really begins.

That first winter was harsh. In addition to using up the supplies brought aboard theMayflower, the pilgrims had to scavenge and even obtain food from the Native Americans who lived in the region.

In the spring of 1621, the pilgrims planted crops and cared for them throughout the summer. The autumn harvest was a good one, so a feast was planned and, according to legend, the neighboring Native Americans were invited to share in the bounty as a symbol of thanks for the help afforded the pilgrims during the previous winter.

Many towns, villages and churches in colonial America celebrated Thanksgiving in the years that followed the first.

States later authorized a Thanksgiving holiday for the harvest. In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln mandated a Thanksgiving Day for the Union in October 1863.

Succeeding presidents declared a day of thanksgiving that bounced around the calendar until 1941, when the fourth Thursday in November was selected by Congress to be Thanksgiving Day. It was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Nov. 26, 1941, and ever since we have been giving thanks each year on the appropriate Thursday in November.

A stamp honoring the holiday — the 34¢ We Give Thanks stamp (Scott 3546, shown in Figure 2) — was issued in 2001.

Earlier in 1941, Roosevelt gave his annual State of the Union address and made his unforgettable "Four Freedoms" speech, outlining his vision for a world founded on four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

The four freedoms became the subject of a 1¢ postage stamp in 1943 (Scott 908, Figure 3). This was not too surprising because Roosevelt was an avid stamp collector who liked to make suggestions to the U.S. Post Office Department about the stamps that should be issued.

The speech also inspired one of America's most beloved illustrators, Norman Rockwell, who created a series of four oil paintings showing his representations of the four freedoms.

These paintings are reproduced on the four stamps that make up the souvenir sheet issued by the United States in 1994 (Scott 2840, shown in Figure 4).

Rockwell's illustrations appeared as covers of four different issues of Saturday Evening Post in February and March 1943. The 50¢ Freedom from Want stamp (Scott 2840a) shows a family sitting down to a big turkey dinner, so very indicative of Thanksgiving.

Another Thanksgiving Day tradition is the annual holiday parade that takes place in New York City. The U.S. Postal Service issued a set of four stamps in 2009 to commemorate this event; the stamp from the set shown in Figure 5 includes a large turkey balloon passing by the spectators.

And that brings us back to the turkey, a bird so magnificent in the wild that Benjamin Franklin thought it should be a part of the national seal instead of the bald eagle. Figure 6 shows a wild turkey in flight on the 1956 3¢ Wildlife Conservation stamp (Scott 1077).

In a letter to his daughter, Franklin compared the turkey to the eagle, stating that in comparison, the turkey is a "much more respectable bird" and a "true native of North America."

More to the point, Franklin said "he is besides, though a little vain & 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."

Ah, the stories that stamps can tell. And for a hobby that teaches so much and provides endless fascination, I am truly thankful.