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Nov 20, 2019 Washington, D.C.

The White House Thanksgiving celebration has been traced back to President Abraham Lincoln’s administration when the president declared in 1863 that the last Thursday in November would be commemorated as Thanksgiving Day.

In 1989, the formalities of pardoning a turkey became a White House Thanksgiving tradition 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.”

“On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation declaring Thursday, November 26, 1789, a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the new nation and its prosperity,” said Lindsay Chervinsky, historian with the White House Historical Association. “After Washington established the precedent, many presidents declared their own days of thanksgiving before President Abraham Lincoln made it an official holiday in 1863. Whereas days of thanksgiving used to be more religious, recently, many presidents have used the holiday to reflect on the nation’s history and its complex national origin story.”

History of Thanksgiving and Turkey Pardons at the White House:

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 serving a traditional turkey dinner, 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.” 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 Warren G. Harding’s last Thanksgiving at the White House—the Harding Girls Club of Chicago 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 the turkey had traveled comfortably: “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 Franklin D. 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.

For more information and stories, visit whitehousehistory.org. 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 Historian Lindsay Chervinsky, please contact press@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 $50 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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