Where do you get your turkey for your family’s big Thanksgiving or Christmas feast? “Why,” you reply, “From the super-market, of course.” And you’re right – as of Sept. 28, 2018, some 240 million turkeys had been raised during the year to feed the American obsession with having a large turkey, perfectly roasted to a beautiful golden brown, resplendent on a platter in the center of each holiday dinner table.
Today, Turkeys are raised in long, low buildings that are ventilated in the summer and heated in the winter. The ration fed the birds is carefully calculated and measured to assure maximum weight gain and everything is kept as sanitary as possible. It usually takes from 19 to 21 weeks to bring the birds from chicks to market weight, at which time they are trucked to a processing plant where they are turned into the attractive packages you find in the meat cases at your favorite grocery store.
But, go back 150 years or so – say the Christmas of 1865 – and what do we see?
The War Between the States had ended just seven or eight months ago at Appomattox, Virginia, when the commander of the Confederate forces, General Robert E. Lee, surrendered to the Union Army Commander, General U.S. Grant. The five long years of that terrible conflict, America’s bloodiest war ever, had cost this country 620,000 dead, wounded and missing.
However, and this is pure speculation on my part, despite the empty chairs at many a holiday table, or the empty sleeves and pant legs that could be seen everywhere, Americans were undoubtedly happy peace had returned at last and were ready to celebrate that Christmas of 1865. Especially in the northern states, where there had been few battles and little devastation, although I’d imagine that even in the defeated South, with their long traditions of festive Christmas celebrations, folks did the best they could.
Turkey shoppers at a market in 1865.
No statistics exist telling us how many turkeys were raised in 1865 or eaten for holiday dinners, but the two woodcuts accompanying this story tell us that the tasty birds were in demand even back then. The pictures appeared in the January 1866 issue of the American Agriculturist, a monthly magazine published in New York City beginning in 1842. There is no explanation with the illustrations except for the caption, “The Turkeys’ Holidays.”
One of the two pictures shows well-dressed city dwellers crowding into a market to choose and purchase their turkey from rows of naked birds hanging by their feet from strings of garland. There are some live birds in a crate that appear to be geese instead of turkeys, as some folks preferred goose for Christmas dinner.
The other illustration is the more interesting of the two and shows how turkey farming was carried on in those far-off days. The turkeys, which are unprotected by any kind of building, and apparently are left to feed on whatever they can find in the woods, have flown into trees to roost on this moonlit night. Several men have climbed a ladder and crawled out onto the tree limbs to knock down the birds. Other boys and men chase down the turkeys and carry them to a shed in the background.
The shed is being tended by a man and a woman, who would have wrung the neck of each bird before dunking it in a large tub of boiling water to scald the feathers. The carcass was then plucked and hung up by the legs over a tub to bleed out before being hauled off to the market. A method of harvesting turkeys that was a little more haphazard than that of today.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all Farm Collector readers!
– Sam Moore
Catching and processing turkeys, circa 1865. Both illustrations are from the January 1866 issue of American Agriculturist magazine in the author’s collection.