Giving Thanks for Vintage Cards

Thanksgiving is one of America’s most traditional holidays. But unlike Christmas, which features ornaments and snow globes, and the Fourth of July, which is festooned with flags and militaria, the nation’s annual harvest feast is associated with fewer collectibles.

Perhaps the most widely available Thanksgiving collectible is the vintage postcard. One hundred-year-old cards commemorating the holiday are widely available from online sources for as little as $3 apiece, and are ideal for scrapbooking and other family activities. They are especially interesting now because, unlike Christmas, people rarely send Thanksgiving greetings anymore.

Collecting for 56 years

One of the nation’s largest dealers in vintage postcards—including collectible Thanksgiving cards—is Joe Paolillo. He is a third-generation collectibles dealer who ran the Georgetown Flea Market in Washington, D.C., for 14 years and has been buying postcards and other collectibles since he was 12 years old. Now 68, he operates an online collectibles dealership based in Maryland with his wife, Rita, called R&J Silver and Such. They list their inventory on GoAntiques.

Paolillo maintains a personal collection of 6,000 vintage postcards and offers another 12,000 for sale. Fewer than 100 on GoAntiques feature a Thanksgiving theme. “It’s not a big card day now, but it used to be,” Paolillo said. “Because it was one of the first American holidays, the cards have patriotic themes. Uncle Sam shows up on a lot of the cards, and they have red, white and blue bunting.”

One of Paolillo’s favorites is titled “Our National Birds”. It features illustrations of the American bald eagle and the wild American turkey.

“Our National Birds” Thanksgiving postcard

The turkey is the mainstay of the Thanksgiving menu, but few people realize that Benjamin Franklin unsuccessfully proposed it as the national bird instead of the bald eagle.

The card’s inscription is a priceless example of vintage verse. “May one give us peace for all our states; the other a piece for all our plates.”

The postcard was patented in 1861—just two years before President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday in November.

Popularity of postcards soars with introduction of divided backs

Postcards became wildly popular after 1907 when the “divided back” card, with space for a message on the address side, came into use. The Post Office Department (which became the U.S. Postal Service in 1971) began permitting correspondents to write on the address side of the card in 1908 and in that year alone, more than 677 million postcards were mailed—more than seven postcards per year for every man, woman and child in the country.

Postcard prices tend to be low because they were mass-produced and remain widely available. Until the outbreak of World War I, the best postcards featuring fine-art illustrations were printed in Germany—even those with American themes and English-language messages.

Today, prices for Thanksgiving and other vintage postcards are determined by condition. Stains, creases and wear marks reduce a postcard’s value. For his personal collection, Paolillo prefers pristine cards that were never stamped or mailed. He especially favors cards by some of the genre’s most famous illustrators, including Ellen Clapsaddle (1865-1934) and Frances Brundage (1854-1937).

A vintage Ellen Clapsaddle Thanksgiving postcard

Exceptional and hard-to-find cards may cost as much as $100—still a bargain compared to many categories of collectibles. These typically feature the work of important artists or have themes such as black Americana and vintage patriotism that may appear out of step—or even insulting—according to today’s sensibilities, but are topics of wider collecting interests.

But for most people, part of the charm and historical fascination of postcards is how they were used —the stamp, postmark, sentiments expressed by the sender and the identity of the recipient. It’s a glimpse into lives of people who would otherwise be forgotten today and examples of how family and friends stayed connected in a slower world long before e-mail and barely with telephone service.

Another one of Paolillo’s Thanksgiving postcards is Thanksgiving Series Number 930 by Julius Bien & Co., N.Y. The 1908 card features two giggling white children trying to eat the same piece of turkey under the smiling gaze of a black domestic servant. It was mailed November 14, 1910, to Lake Mills, Wis.

Giggling kids postcard

In addition to Paolillo’s collection, vintage Thanksgiving postcards from several dealers are available on GoAntiques.

John and Pamela Grabianowski of Ohio-based Great Expectations Antiques are offering a lot of 19 vintage colorful postcards, with all but two in excellent or very good condition. The cards include one undivided unused; five divided unused; two divided signed not sent; two divided mailed, no stamp; and nine divided mailed with stamps. Circa 1908-1911.

In Montgomery, Ala., dealer Linda Rosenzweig of Mama’s Treasures is offering three dozen vintage Thanksgiving postcards. One of the most interesting in her inventory is a card featuring a turkey and a Thanksgiving proclamation that bears a 1-cent stamp and a1909 postmark from Tacoma, Wash. It is addressed to Mr. Robert Hoppe of Sagle, Idaho—no street address required, apparently, for this small lakeshore town near the Canadian border.

The proclamation Thanksgiving card

Another colorful vintage postcard offered by Rosenzweig features a girl in a yellow dress fending off a turkey with a bright red umbrella.

The girl, umbrella and turkey

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