Relatively few stamps have been released by the United States with a Thanksgiving tie-in, arguably one of the most purely “American” holidays celebrated in the nation. The first was a set of three stamps issued in 1920 to mark the arrival of the Pilgrims on the ship Mayflower (Scott #548-550). Issued on December 21, 1920, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, commemorating the 300th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, critics complained the stamps were too small and the designs too crowded. They were also the first issues not bearing words to indicate the country of origin. Many thought they would be recalled.
The Mayflower left England on September 16, 1620, to establish a colony in America. The Pilgrims chartering the Mayflower were devout Christians who felt that only by breaking all ties with the Church of England could they retain their integrity before God. They sailed to Holland first, but after no improvement they set sail for America.
The Mayflower first began its trip from London that July with about 65 passengers aboard, including hired hands, servants, and farmers. The 100-foot ship met up with the Speedwell, which had come from Holland with Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution. It soon became apparent the Speedwell was not seaworthy, and the ships had to turn back twice for repairs.
After a delay of more than a month, the Mayflower finally set sail alone on September 16. There were now 102 passengers, including some from the Speedwell, and a crew of about 50. Stormy seas slowed the voyage and the ship and its occupants didn’t reach the waters of Massachusetts until November. Aboard their ship, 41 of the men signed the Mayflower Compact — an agreement to abide by the rules of the majority “for the good of the colony.”
The crew tried to sail down the coast to the Virginia Colony — their original destination — but the winter seas wouldn’t allow it. The passengers remained aboard the Mayflower, anchored in Cape Cod Bay, throughout the winter. There had been no time to build shelters before the cold weather set in. Conditions were crowded — the cabins were small and ceilings were only about five feet high. Lack of fresh food resulted in poor diets, and many people aboard died of disease that first winter.
When spring came, surviving passengers and crew went ashore and built houses and fortifications in what became the community of Plymouth. In April 1621, Christopher Jones, captain of the Mayflower and his remaining crew returned to England, traveling over milder seas than on the first voyage.
The final fate of the famous ship is unknown, but some historians claim the beams were used to construct a barn known as the “Mayflower Barn,” located in England. Today, tourists come from around the world to visit the location.
The landing of the Pilgrims was once again portayed on a 6-cent stamp released on November 21, 1970, in Plymouth. Scott #1420 honors the 350th anniversary of the historic event. The stamp was designed by Mark English, lithographed and engraved by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and issued in panes of 50, perforated 11, with a 129,785,000 stamps issued.
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. Following the Declaration of Independence in 1776, individual states in the newly-established United States of America later authorized Thanksgiving holidays 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 the National Thanksgiving Day. It was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on November 26, 1941, and ever since we have been giving thanks each year on the appropriate Thursday in November.
Earlier that year, when President Roosevelt delivered his annual State of the Union address on January 6, 1941, he stressed the serious nature of the war in Europe and that “at no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today.” He continued to explain that the United States must assist the Allied nations in defeating the Axis powers from taking over all of Europe.
President Roosevelt continued with perhaps one of his most famous speeches, saying, “In these future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” Those freedoms are the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in one’s own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. He concluded his speech stating that, “Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.”
On February 12, 1943, a single 1-cent green stamp was issued to promote President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (Scott #908). An avid stamp collector himself, Roosevelt personally selected the image for the stamp. He believed that the stamp should convey to the world the reasons the U.S. had joined the war — the Four Freedoms outlined in his 1941 State of the Union address.
For the stamp design, President Roosevelt selected Paul Manship’s painting, Liberty Holding the Lighted Torch of Freedom and Enlightenment. Below this allegory is the inscription Freedom of Speech and Rwligion, From Want and Fear. Intended as a patriotic regular issue stamp, it replaced the 1-cent National Defense stamp of 1940. Unlike the previous World War II issues, the Four Freedoms stamp was positively received by stamp collectors and the public, who felt the stamp perfectly embodied the ideas it presented. Printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the Rotary press, more than 1.2 billikn of tbe stamps were issued, perforated 11×10½.
President Roosevelt’s 1941 speech also inspired one of America’s most beloved illustrators, Norman Rockwell, who created a series of four oil paintings showing his representations of each of the four freedoms. More than one million people saw the paintings on a 16-city tour to promote war-bonds. The tour was a tremendous success, and over $130 million was raised for the cause These paintings are reproduced on the four stamps that make up a souvenir sheet issued by the United States on July 1, 1994, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (Scott #2840).
By the 1930s, Norman Rockwell was doing covers for the Saturday Evening Post almost exclusively. In 1930, he met and married Mary Barstow Rhodes. They had three sons, and interestingly, many of his Post covers from this period reflect the change in his point of view — from observer to participant. By the end of the 1930s, he had produced the mature style for which he is best remembered.
Honored by the Art Director’s Club in 1940 for the best advertising poster of the year, Rockwell soon shifted his focus to World War II subjects. G.I. Willie Gillis and Rosie the Riveter were some of the characters who found expression in his work.
The years following the war were filled with social and intellectual changes, many of which are reflected in Rockwell’s work. During this time he produced some of his best-known covers. In 1963, the Post ended its 47-year relationship with him, however he continued to work for magazines such as McCall’s and Look. The last cover he painted was for American Artist in 1976. That same year, the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts held a parade in his honor. The longest parade in the town’s history, it lasted more than two hours. On November 8, 1978, Norman Rockwell died at his Stockbridge home at the age of 84.
In 1942, Norman Rockwell began a series of four paintings that pictured ordinary Americans in scenes portraying the ideals for which the United States had gone to war. Called The Four Freedoms, the series included Freedom of Worship, Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want.
Unlike much of his other work, these paintings were not designed as illustrations, but rather as original works of art. More than one million people saw the original paintings in a 16-city tour on behalf of war bonds. So successful was the tour that over $130 million was raised for the cause. Publishing the paintings as inside illustrations, The Saturday Evening Post generated an equally impressive response from its readers. Government agencies that had turned down the series when Rockwell offered it to them soon realized their error, for these powerful images struck a chord that reverberated around the country.
Despite a devastating studio fire in 1943 in which he lost many irreplaceable paintings and sketches, as well as his entire collection of books, antique costumes, and props, Rockwell continued his war effort.
Rockwell’s illustrations appeared as covers of four different issues of Saturday Evening Post in February and March 1943. The 50-cent Freedom from Want stamp (Scott #2840a) shows a family sitting down to a big turkey dinner, so very indicative of Thanksgiving.
The first U.S. stamp to depict a turkey was released on May 5, 1956. Scott #1077 was issued to emphasize the importance of wildlife conservation in the United States — the first of three stamps with a similar theme, each one showing a different species. The 3-cent rose lake stamp showcases wild turkeys, the largest and fastest of the game birds. It was issued at the convention of the Wisconsin Federation of Stamp Clubs, in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
The turkey was proposed by Benjamin Franklin as the national symbol of the U.S. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote, “For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly…The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and…a true original native of America…He is besides, though a little vain and 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.”
Scott #3546 was released by the United States Postal Service on October 19, 2001, in Dallas, Texas. The 34-cent stamp was designed by Richard Steaff of Scottsdale, Arizona, and illustrated by Margaret Cusack of Brooklyn, New York. The first Holiday Celebrations Series stamp to spotlight Thanksgiving Day, it recalls both historic stories of America’s “First Thanksgiving” and more recent memories of traditional family gatherings. A quilted cornucopia pattern on the stamp symbolizes an abundant harvest and the promise of future prosperity with the inscription We Give Thanks. It was printed by Ashton-Potter (USA) Ltd. using offset lithography with microprinted U.S.A. in self-adhesive panes of 20, perforated with serpentine die cuts to a gauge of 11¼. A total of 69 million copies of the stamp were issued.
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 on September 9, 2009, to commemorate this event (Scott #4417-4420). New York City’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the “longest-running show on Broadway.” Alongside turkey dinner and pumpkin pie, it is one of the holiday’s best-known traditions.
An idea that began in 1924 with a group of Macy’s department store employees has grown into an American custom. Today, more than 3.5 million live spectators and 50 million television viewers are entertained by the pomp and pageantry that is the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Every year, the best high school and college bands in the country march down Broadway on Thanksgiving morning. The heartbeat of the parade, marching bands get the crowd moving to their rhythmic beats. Giant balloons are also crowd pleasers. The balloons first appeared in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927, replacing the live zoo animals that frightened some children. Larger than life and lighter than air, these soaring giants enchant children of all ages.
The grand finale of every New York City Thanksgiving Day Parade is the float carrying Santa Claus. His arrival signals to everyone that the holidays have arrived. As his reindeer lead the sleigh into Herald Square, they usher in the transition to the Christmas season.
Each of the four 44-cent stamps released in September 2009 illustrate a different portion of the parade. Scott #4417 is titled “The Crowd”. In the 1920s, many of Macy’s Department Store employees were first-generation immigrants. They wanted to give thanks for their new life in America with a traditional celebration from their European homeland — a parade.
They held the first Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City in 1924. The pageant featured store employees dressed as clowns and cowboys, with bands and live animals. The procession ended, as it has ever since, with a float carrying Santa Claus into Herald Square, signaling the transition to the Christmas season. Over a quarter of a million smiling faces watched the parade its first year. It was hailed a success and declared an annual event.
The number of spectators increased each year and grew to one million by the Depression years. The parade was postponed during World War II. In 1945, the soldiers came home and people lined the streets again to see the first postwar parade.
The audience became national in 1948 when the parade was broadcast from coast to coast. People from around the country could watch the festivities.
The Thanksgiving Day Parade has become an American tradition. Today, 3 million people line the streets of Manhattan and another 44 million watch the pageantry on television.
Scott #4418 features the “Drum Major.” “Band, forward-march!” commands the drum major, while raising a salute to the judge’s stand. He twirls his mace and throws it high into the air, startibg the parade.
In 1650, the British Army Corps of Drums played small pieces of music to communicate duty calls and battle signals to the regiments. It was the drum major’s job to lead the band. His other duties included carrying out military lashings.
When the drum major was adopted by high school and college marching bands, the position transformed into a performance art. Salutes became more elaborate and the mace was not for beating time anymore, it was for twirling.
Conducting a marching band in the Thanksgiving Day Parade is no easy task. Drum majors must keep formation, conduct the music, and perform a salute and mace routine. All of this is done while marching through streets packed with roaring crowds, giant balloons, and television cameras.
Today, drum majors perform breathtaking routines. They twirl batons and high-step at the front of the band. It is their job to energize the bands and entertain the crowds at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. The band will give everything they have until they here the drum major call, “Band, parade-rest!”
The “Marching Band” is featured on Scott #4419. New York City’s first Thanksgiving Day Parade featured a marching band dressed as clowns. The band traveled down 34th Street, playing marching tunes and amusing onlookers along the route.
The following year, military bands began a tradition of playing in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. The tapping of marching soldiers echoed through the streets of Manhattan. The windows along Broadway shook as the brass bands belted out traditional marches and patriotic songs.
During the years of World War II, the parades were suspended. The war took its toll on American soldiers. So when the parade resumed in 1945, college and high school bands marched, allowing the soldiers to rest. These new bands replaced traditional marches with songs inspired by all forms of popular music. Drum lines pounded out cadences while horn sections wailed out fan favorites. Today, ten high school and college bands are selected to compete in the procession. It is a great honor to be chosen to participate in the event.
Every year, crowds line the streets of New York City to listen to the best marching bands in the country. Although marching bands compete against one another, entertaining the audience remains the most important goal.
The final stamp in the 2009 Thanksgiving Day Parade set (and the most recent to have been released themed to this holiday) is Scott #4420 illustrating the “Turkey Balloon.” In 1927, promoters promised that the Thanksgiving Day Parade would be “bigger and better than ever,” and it was. For the first time, giant balloons traveled along the streets of New York City.
Balloons were introduced to replace the live zoo animals that frightened some of the children. The crowds of that era had never seen anything like the new balloons. New Yorkers were awed as giant dinosaurs, elephants, and tigers “peered” through fifth-story apartment windows.
In 1929, the balloons were released with the promise of a $50 reward for anyone who found them. The release program ended three years later when a man attempted to use a plane to retrieve a giant cat balloon. The balloon tangled around the wing and the plane almost crashed into Broadway. When the parades were canceled during World War II, the balloons were donated to the war effort. More than 650 pounds of scrap balloon rubber went towards making vital tires and life rafts.
Today, the balloons are fashioned after characters from famous cartoons, video games, and Internet websites. Although the characters have changed, the sight of these huge bobbing figures never fails to enchant spectators. They have become a signature of New York City’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Out of all the holidays that are “unique” to the United States, I miss Thanksgiving Day most of all. I have fond memories of the wonderful food prepared by my mother (her pumpkin pie remains the best I’ve ever tasted) and of spending most of the day devouring a constant stream of it while watching the parades on television. From 1977 until the mid-1990s, I lived in the Midwestern suburbs of Kansas City where the Thanksgiving Day tradition was to turn on the Christmas lights covering a huge 1920s art-deck shopping area called Country Club Plaza, an event attended by nearly a million very cold spectators each year.
I have lived in southern Thailand for more than a decade now. While a number of the resort hotels do host Thanksgiving dinners, I have never attended one due to the extremely high costs. Whatever turkeys and pies that make it to the local supermarket are also quite expensive and have probably been frozen for six months or more. However, I look forward to the holiday because my family back in Kansas City always gathers together and make a communal “pass-the-phone” call to me and I can hear their joyful voices once again, And that is something to truly be thankful for!
Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody!