Featured The Life and Presidency of Herbert Hoover
The 2016 White House Christmas ornament honors the administration of the thirty-first president of the United States Herbert Hoover, who served...
First families received turkeys as gifts long before the 1920s. Horace Vose, the “Poultry King” of southwestern Rhode Island, first sent one of his prized birds to President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, and continued to furnish White House Thanksgiving and Christmas tables for forty years.1 Yet in the 1920s, true to its reputation as a fast-paced era that saw major technological and cultural change, the turkey gift tradition became national news.
In 1920 President Woodrow Wilson spent his last Thanksgiving in the White House. The presidential election had been decided a few weeks earlier, but another contest took place on the White House lawn: a “spirited battle” between the two turkeys sent to Wilson that year.
The first, a 38-pound bird from the Chamber of Commerce of Cuero, Texas, had traveled to Washington in a coop reportedly modeled after the White House.2 The second contender was sent to Wilson by South Trimble of Kentucky, clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. The turkeys tussled outside the White House and, while neither received grievous injuries, the Kentucky turkey prevailed. He enjoyed a victory strut around the lawn, but the real winner was President Wilson, who later enjoyed a hearty Thanksgiving meal.3
turkeys fought it out, a third turkey made its way to president-elect
Warren G. Harding, who spent the holiday in the Panama Canal Zone that
year. The turkey, a gift of the Harding Girls’ Club of Chicago, traveled
in a Pullman railcar to New Orleans and made the rest of the trip by
4 The club furnished Harding’s turkeys for the next two years,
sending them on exciting cross-country trips that captured national
Supreme II, named after his predecessor, made
his way to the White House by airplane in 1921, at a time when flight
was still a novelty for many Americans 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” that the girls in the club had knit,
according to the Baltimore Sun.
5 But turkeys are not well suited for
flight—air mail or otherwise—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.
A Texas turkey sent to the White House the same year made a similarly splashy arrival, but this time sent a political message. The Cuero Chamber of Commerce turkey traveled in a crate that resembled a battleship, complete with turrets, guns, and decorative flags. Harding was participating in the Conference for the Limitation of Armaments at the time, which dealt with, among other things, the possibility of scrapping U.S. battleships. 7
1922, 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 the 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.”
Harding died in
office in August 1923, and his successor,
Calvin Coolidge, celebrated
his first official White House Thanksgiving in November of that year.
Coolidge took at different approach to the holiday. He discouraged the
turkey gift tradition, instead opting to buy local. “Sometimes enough
turkeys have been received at the White House to load down the tables of
the whole staff,” reported the New York Times, “Mr. Coolidge does not
regard the practice as one that should be encouraged.”
the following years, however, Coolidge’s resolve gave way to custom,
and the White House received its usual influx of holiday birds.
“Coolidge to be Sure of His Dinner,” a Los Angeles Times headline read
in 1925, as “the generosity of the American public [was] more than
taking care of the needs of the Executive household.”
10 At the beginning
of November 1925 the Coolidges also received an early Thanksgiving meal
thanks to 13-year-old Vermonter Leona Baldwin who, with the assistance
of 19 other Girl Scouts, prepared a luncheon for the president and first
lady. From the headquarters of the Girls Scouts that once stood on
White House property, Leona served a turkey that had been raised on her
Turkeys were not the only game sent to the White House for Thanksgiving. Throughout his presidency Coolidge received quail, ducks, geese, rabbits, and once even a deer. But when a raccoon arrived at the White House in time for Thanksgiving in 1926, Coolidge hesitated. He had never eaten raccoon meat, and despite assurances of the animal’s “toothsome flavor,” he declined to give it a try. The raccoon met a very different fate: it became the Coolidges’ pet. 12
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