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Nov 07, 2018 Washington, D.C.

The White House Thanksgiving celebration and Turkey Pardon tradition have been traced back to President Abraham Lincoln’s administration when the president declared in 1863 that the last Thursday in November be commemorated as a day of Thanksgiving. In 1989, the formalities of pardoning a turkey gelled when President George H.W. Bush remarked: "‘Reprieve,’ ‘keep him going,’ or ‘pardon’: it's all the same for the turkey, as long as he doesn't end up on the president's holiday table.”

See a timeline of Thanksgiving Traditions at the White House and read about the History of the Turkey Pardon.

Reports of turkeys as gifts to American presidents can be traced back to the 1870s, when Rhode Island Poultry dealer Horace Vose began sending well fed birds to the White House.

Turkey presentations at the White House became national news in the 1920s with accounts of turkeys taking exciting cross-country trips to the White House and arriving dressed for the occasion in goggles and sweaters, inside their decorated coops. Read about these stories and other game sent to the White House for Thanksgiving- including a raccoon that became First Lady Grace Coolidge’s pet.

In addition to turkey, White House Thanksgiving meals have featured items such as Chesapeake Bay oysters, rockfish from the Potomac River, terrapin from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, cranberries from Cape Cod, and mince and pumpkin pies. Learn more about how presidents spent Thanksgiving and what they ate.

Stories of note:

  • In 1921, one turkey named Supreme II traveled to the White House by airplane at a time when flight was still a novelty and delivery of letters and packages via air mail had only recently begun. The turkey traveled in style, “wearing an aviation helmet and goggles and clad in a black and gold sweater held on by a pink bow. But turkeys are not well suited for flight—and the trip ended early when Supreme II became air sick. The turkey made the rest of the trip to the White House by train.
  • In 1922, President Harding’s last Thanksgiving at the White House, the Chicago girls sent another turkey on a wild ride. Supreme III, who the girls fattened on chocolates, took a sensational, record-breaking road trip. He traveled more than 800 miles in just under 38 hours, and like his predecessors made national news. The Atlanta Constitution noted that turkey had traveled comfortably, in “a motor coat was made especially for him” and an “extra large cage, suspended by and set on springs, to prevent too much shake-up on the trip.”
  • President Roosevelt signed legislation (H.J. Res 41) in 1941 designating the fourth Thursday in November as the federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.
  • President Harry Truman was the first president to receive a turkey from the Poultry and Egg National Board and National Turkey Federation. Although Truman did not start the turkey pardon tradition, his administration made turkey presentations a presidential media event that continues today.
  • A week before Christmas in 1945, President Harry Truman asked Alonzo Fields, maître d’hôtel of the White House, to identify an African-American family that could use a holiday meal. Fields contacted the Southeast Settlement House, which identified a family for Fields to visit. During that encounter, he learned the family had no way of cooking the meal. He reported this to the president, who then ordered that the meal be prepared and cooked at the White House, then delivered to the family by Secret Service afterwards. This became an annual Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition during the Truman administration.

For more information and stories, visit the Thanksgiving at the White House Press Collection in the White House Historical Association's Press Room.

See a photo album of high-res Turkey Pardons images here. (Please credit The White House Historical Association when using photos or information.)

For media inquiries or to schedule an interview with a historian, please contact press@whaa.org or Jessica Fredericks, Communications Director at Jfredericks@whha.org.

P.D.F. Resources

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About the white house historical association

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy envisioned a restored White House that conveyed a sense of history through its decorative and fine arts. She sought to inspire Americans, especially children, to explore and engage with American history and its presidents. In 1961, the White House Historical Association was established to support her vision to preserve and share the Executive Mansion’s legacy for generations to come. Supported entirely by private resources, the Association’s mission is to assist in the preservation of the state and public rooms, fund acquisitions for the White House permanent collection, and educate the public on the history of the White House. Since its founding, the Association has given more than $45 million to the White House in fulfillment of its mission. 

To learn more about the White House Historical Association, please visit WhiteHouseHistory.org

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