Behind the Scenes in Old Photos: How Your Ancestors Got The Thanksgiving Turkey

By Maureen A. Taylor


Few tables in America are without a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. It’s an old tradition to roast a bird (although whether a turkey was actually at the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving is unknown).

This father, accompanied by his young son, went to pick out a turkey big enough for their family gathering. (See the picture larger here.) In the middle of the photo, the poultry farmer weighs a turkey on a scale. The two men on the right of the image may be buying that particular specimen. Behind them are a lot of turkey’s already cleaned and ready for purchase. Doesn’t look like they sell gravy and potatoes like the farm I used to go to though!

The Bain News Agency took this image around 1910-1915. It’s a great everyday scene captured for a newspaper. The George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress contains thousands of images of newsworthy pictures.

This photo connects us to our ancestors. For years I visited a turkey farm to purchase the main course, but most nowadays get a frozen or fresh turkey from the grocery store. Our ancestors either shot one, took one from their own poultry stock or bought one in a setting like this. They were also available in city butcher shops.

While shopping is usually done by women in the family, from this image it appears that obtaining the turkey was man’s work. It was usually Mom’s job to pluck and clean the bird.

Preserve your Thanksgiving celebration by making like a news photographer:

  • If you buy your turkey at a farm, take a picture. That farm may not always be around. By doing so you’re documenting a bit of local history.
  • I’m not sure how a grocery store would feel about you taking pictures as you shop, but imagine your grandchildren looking back on that image years from now. What would be familiar or foreign to them?
  • Using a video app on your smart phone, make a movie of a relative preparing a traditional side-dish or dessert. If they’d rather not be photographed, try zooming in on their hands and the ingredients.
  • Take pictures of guests. You can also delegate that responsibility to a younger member of the family, and have the child ask each person a family history question.

The StoryCorps Great American Thanksgiving Listen encourages families to share stories this holiday. You may be asked by a student in your family for an interview. If not, be the person to bring up family history!

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:


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