Gobble Gobble: America’s Thanksgiving Turkey Tradition

While it is generally understood that venison graced the table of the first Thanksgiving celebration, the idea of Pilgrims chowing down on turkey is solidly enshrined in the American imagination. The 1930 film The Turkey Business (Local Identifier: 33.364)shows how the “early explorers” of America hunted and prepared wild turkeys.

The Turkey Business begins by establishing the Thanksgiving tradition of turkey on the table, dating back to the Pilgrims. (Stills from The Turkey Business)

Most of the film, however, is a practical guide to raising turkeys, from eliminating the dreaded Blackhead Disease by keeping your chickens separate from your turkeys, to how to kill and pluck the bird when it is ready for the market. The final sequence shows how “the end justifies the means” when a young boy happily enjoys a perfectly roasted turkey.

The bulk of the film educates the viewer about how to raise turkeys.
(Stills from
The Turkey Business)

The Turkey Business was made by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Federal Extension Service. The Extension Service was established in 1914 with the Smith-Lever Act, which established a formal partnership between the USDA and the nation’s land-grant universities so that information about agriculture and home economics could be distributed to rural areas. In the early decades of the last century, films like The Turkey Business were shown to small communities around the country. Attendees received not just an evening’s entertainment, they also learned how to prevent sickness in livestock, produce better crop yields, and run a more efficient household. (For more on how the extension film shows worked, watch the 1922 USDA film Mollie of Pine Grove Vat.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

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