|By Larry LeMasters
Ever since turkeys became both the meal and the symbol for Thanksgiving, their pictures have graced the front of postcards. By the early 1900s, as the romance for Thanksgiving as a holiday reached fruition, Americans viewed Thanksgiving as a special day of “thanks” and a day for families to gather together. When family could not be together for this special day, postcards were mailed to let each family member know they were missed.
Thanksgiving postcards often featured American flags, families (especially children) gathered at well-stocked tables, but most notably on postcards was the know famous Thanksgiving symbol — the turkey. One interesting fact, though, is few Thanksgiving postcards actually depicted a turkey cooked or on the table for eating. Instead, turkeys were illustrated pulling a sort of chariot or cart for children to ride in, pulling a cart laden with harvest foods, or in other humorous situations.
Early in our country’s history, both the turkey and the bald eagle were under consideration for the national symbol of America. Benjamin Franklin was one American who argued passionately on behalf of the turkey. Franklin felt the turkey, although “vain and silly,” was a better choice for a national symbol than the bald eagle, which he considered a “coward.” Fortunately, the bald eagle became our country’s symbol and the turkey became the symbol of Thanksgiving, which makes for better eating.
Speaking of eating, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, more than 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the U.S. each Thanksgiving. Over 7 billion pounds of turkey is processed each year.
During the Age of Postcards, Thanksgiving Day seemed a grandeur holiday, but by the 1920s, folding greeting cards emerged and postcards began to wane. Soon Thanksgiving lost its status as a “paper” holiday when people quit sending cards to family and friends to celebrate the “Turkey” day, but from 1900 until 1925, Thanksgiving postcards rivaled those for Easter, Valentine’s Day, and even Christmas in volume. And today a new generation has discovered the beauty and wit of Thanksgiving postcards since the cards are once again savored as collectibles.
Some Thanksgiving postcard collectors search for any postcard with a turkey on it, but other collectors are more selective, searching for certain printing companies or special artists. One such group of collectors, known as Clapsaddles, searches for and collects Thanksgiving postcards illustrated by Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle.
Clapsaddle (Jan. 8, 1865 – Jan. 7, 1934) was an American illustrator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is widely regarded as the most prolific postcard illustrator of her era.
Born just a few months before the end of the Civil War, Clapsaddle grew up in Herkimer County, New York, and as a young girl her artistic ability, especially her love of sketching, became apparent, causing her parents to encourage her artistic endeavors. Clapsaddle attended a one-room schoolhouse until she graduated from the 8th grade. In 1882, she graduated from Richfield Springs Seminary, a local preparatory academy for young ladies. Largely due to her artistic abilities, she received a two-year scholarship to attend the Cooper Union Institute for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.
Following completion of her studies in 1884, she returned to her parent’s home and began teaching art to private students from her home. Soon Clapsaddle was commissioned to paint portraits of rich families around Richfield Springs, and she submitted examples of her work to New York City editors and publishers and quickly became a recognized and desired commercial artist. She began a life-long relationship with International Art Publishing Company of New York City, becoming the company’s premier postcard illustrator.
Around 1906, she supposedly founded the Wolf Publishing Company. While some historians claim she only worked for Wolf Company, most believe she was the first female artist of her era to establish her own printing company.
As a freelance artist, her illustrations were often used in advertising, calendars, and greeting cards, but her sustained success came from her painting scenes on single-faced cards that were mailed and became known as postcards. The Golden Age of postcards lasted for nearly 20 years, 1898 – 1915, during which time Clapsaddle is credited with illustrating more than 3,000 postcards.
Holiday themed postcards are among Clapsaddle’s most sought after cards, including her Thanksgiving-themed cards which included illustrations of turkeys, pilgrims, prayers, wishbones, and children — lots of children. She is famous for her depiction of adorable children, capturing the innocence of life (farm, city, and pilgrim life) on her numerous Thanksgiving postcards.
While Clapsaddle’s style and themes are easily recognized by today’s collectors, many collectors still prefer owning “signed” postcards so there is no doubt who illustrated the card.
Sadly, since her original copyright ended decades ago, reproductions of Ellen Clapsaddle postcards, being sold as new issue, are readily found today, making identification of original Clapsaddle postcards difficult, at times, for novice collectors.
Still, Clapsaddle Thanksgiving postcards are nearly the perfect collectible since they are still abundant, reasonably priced (averaging about $8), don’t take up a lot of space, fun for the entire family, and make cute and nostalgic wall decorations when framed.