The Thanksgiving table: From decorations to delicacies

Our Collections Coordinator Michelle Villarreal talks turkey and tablecloth with us, on this day before Thanksgiving. If you’re looking for last-minute, “vintage” decorating tips, you’ve come to the right place.

As Thanksgiving draws near, thoughts of family gatherings and bounteous feasts come to mind. No holiday is complete without careful consideration of the menu, but just as important are the table centerpiece and décor. Guidebooks and magazines from the 1900-1920s reveal a world filled with damask linen, carved pumpkins filled with fruit, and luscious holiday fare.

Dressing up the table

A decidedly unusual centerpiece from 1914’s Table Decoration and Delicacies by Hester Price, calls for a stuffed turkey (presumably of the taxidermed kind) with its feathers and certain parts intact! The bird would undoubtedly make for an interesting conversation piece. The turkey is to be surrounded with wheat bunches, red poppies, corn, and a china set with a turkey pattern on the center of the plate. In a guidebook published in 1918, How to Set the Table for Every Occasion, by Sara Swain Adams, describes a more subdued spread with pure linen damask cloth for the table and a pumpkin centerpiece with a golden corn cob and its husk placed thoughtfully around the pumpkin. A choice selection of smilax (a woody vine native to the Eastern United States) should be placed along the table edges before stopping at the corn arrangement. Shades for the lights should be small orange paper pumpkins, and another set of paper-mache ones filled with salted nuts and placed on top of the service plate. In case additional decorations are needed, artificial poppies would be appropriate for vases and shelves. For place cards, a must in the early 1900s, we can find helpful tips in Mary W. Alexander’s The Table, published in 1904. What was considered a unique idea for Thanksgiving place cards involved orange-colored cardboard cut in the shape of pumpkins about 2 ½ inches in diameter. The stem was to be tied with an olive green ribbon, and, of course, the mouth, nose, and eyes cut to look like a Jack-o’-lantern.

By the 1920s, it seems that little changed when it came to Thanksgiving table adornment. According to the 1924 book Table Decorations, by Edna S. Tipton, cranberries, fall foliage, and seasonal fruits were considered a beautiful sight for guests to enjoy while dining. A suggestion for a children’s table involves a centerpiece of hay, along with toy turkeys, paper pumpkins, and pitchforks that form a base around it. If actual hay was unavailable, a bunch of thinly cut yellow tissue paper would have worked just as well.

Thanksgiving recipes

If the host decorates the table with a horn-of-plenty as a centerpiece, the following menu from Price’s 1914 book would go well with the decor:

Black bean soup
Roast turkey, stuffed with oysters
Cranberry jelly, succotash, sweet potatoes, creamed celery
Brown bread, olives
Hearts of lettuce with French dressing
Crackers, Camembert cheese
Pumpkin pie, nuts, raisins
Bonbons and coffee

And, a menu suggestion for the host on a budget, from Needlecraft magazine, 1928:

Thankful but Economical

Rabbit Fricassee (creamy dish made with meat and dense sauce)
Grilled sweet potatoes
Currant Jelly or Cranberry and Raisin Sauce
Dinner rolls     Creamed Turnips
Spiced Pineapple Pear Salad with Cream cheese
Pumpkin, Raisins or Mince Pie

As you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal and spruce up your home, take some time to reflect on the possibility that history may just be at your fingertips, whether with meal planning or selecting centerpieces that may have adorned the table of hosts from the past.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!



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