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Raising the Thanksgiving turkey

By Neil Prendergast


A century ago, the turkey was in truly poor shape. Its numbers had dropped considerably during the late nineteenth century, largely due to overhunting, habitat loss, and disease. In 1920, there were about 3.5 million turkeys in the United States, down from an estimated 10 million when Europeans first arrived in North America. For those Americans in the 1920s who thought about turkeys, fear was in the air: in the future, would there be turkeys to raise? And would there be turkeys to hunt?

Today, there are over 250 million turkeys in the United States. Most of them are domestic turkeys destined for supermarket shelves, but a solid seven million of them roost in the nation’s forests, the object of hunters’ early morning pursuits. Together, the story of wild and domestic turkeys in the United States is one of both massive decline and astonishing restoration.

It is also a story of an incredible division of knowledge, and even loss of knowledge—mostly due to American attitudes toward gender and work.

To explain, it is best to visit the late eighteenth century, when Americans started paying serious attention to turkey raising. Tending the birds was almost entirely women’s work. The often cited observer of American culture, J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, wrote in 1782 that “our wives are famous for the raising of turkeys” and important diarists of the era, such as the Maine midwife Martha Ballard, made it clear that women indeed were the ones who commonly raised turkeys. Her diary is rich with entries about tending turkeys, including one from 4 May 1792 that read “Put 17 Eggs under Turkey who was Seting.”

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, farmwomen in the East and Midwest commonly raised turkeys. To raise hearty birds, they frequently crossed wild and domestic strains by finding the eggs of wild turkeys and raising the birds with their domestic flocks. This illustration, which appeared in an 1833 children’s magazine, displays the popular association of farmwomen with the poultry yard. Credit: Parley’s Magazine for Children and Youth, Saturday, October 12, 1833, 42, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Used with permission
In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, farmwomen in the East and Midwest commonly raised turkeys. To raise hearty birds, they frequently crossed wild and domestic strains by finding the eggs of wild turkeys and raising the birds with their domestic flocks. This illustration, which appeared in an 1833 children’s magazine, displays the popular association of farmwomen with the poultry yard. Credit: Parley’s Magazine for Children and Youth, Saturday, October 12, 1833, 42, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Used with permission

Placing eggs in a nest was no trivial act. It blended wild and domestic strains, for the turkey eggs Ballard and other women were putting under their turkeys were eggs they had found in the woods. As Crevecoeur noted, in successful turkey raising, “The great secret consists in procuring eggs of the wild sort.” For a century more, American farmwomen along the East Coast and later in the Midwest commonly used wild stock to keep their domestic flocks healthy, for they understood the problems of too closely interbreeding their turkeys. By the late 1800s, they were entering turkeys into agricultural shows, proud of the strong breeding lines they had created. Among the many breeds, the favored was the Bronze, which the American Farmer noted, were “much sought for because they derive from wild stock.”

Disaster hit in the 1890s, though, and it divided the nineteenth century of American farmwomen raising turkeys from the twentieth century of turkey agribusiness and wildlife management. The disaster was a disease called blackhead. It destroyed a turkey’s liver. The national production of domestic turkeys, which had peaked in 1890 at about 11 million, withered to a mere 3.5 million over the next three decades. Attempts to revive the industry included searching for wild stock to resuscitate the domestic breeds, but wild turkeys were becoming increasingly difficult to find. Overhunting and habitat destruction had nearly extirpated the wild turkey from the United States. Ohio saw its last native wild turkey in 1880 and other Midwestern states soon followed the pattern: Michigan in 1897; Illinois in 1903; and Indiana in 1906.

When the domestic turkey industry did turn around, it did so in the American West, where blackhead was not endemic. Turkey ranching, as it was called, emulated the model of chicken raising, which was gradually adopting efficiency as its most honored value. In the 1920s and 1930s, turkeys became the central focus of farms, no longer a sideline activity. Poultry scientists fine-tuned the breeding of the Bronze turkey, making it first bigger and then white, so that its carcass would appear more attractive at the grocery store (dark feathers left small marks). Meanwhile, the wild turkey population rebounded, largely thanks to the efforts facilitated by the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act, which created funding for state wildlife agencies. One wildlife biologist calls the rebound the best “example of success in modern wildlife management.” From a low of about 30,000, the wild turkey population has increased to its current 7 million.

In the history of the Thanksgiving turkey, the professionalization of knowledge created a split: wildlife managers studied wild turkeys and poultry scientists studied domestic turkeys. There were few, if any, young farmwomen who grew up to be mid-twentieth century poultry scientists or wildlife managers, and no one in those fields talked about crossing domestic and wild strains, the time honored practice of farmwomen. In fact, that knowledge became largely lost: in a 1967 wild turkey management guide, the Wildlife Society declared that domestic breeds did not derive “from native wild birds.” The organization was simply unaware of farmwomen’s work decades before. The story of the Thanksgiving turkey, then, is a story about how gender, labor, and knowledge relate. If there is a lesson, it is that what we know about nature depends a lot upon who we are and the work we do.

Neil Prendergast is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is currently working on a book about nature and American holidays. He is the author of “Raising the Thanksgiving Turkey: Agroecology, Gender, and the Knowledge of Nature” (available to read for free for a limited time) in Environmental History.

Environmental History (EH) is the leading journal in the world for scholars, scientists, and practitioners who are interested in following the development of this exciting field. EH is a quarterly, interdisciplinary journal that carries international articles that portray human interactions with the natural world over time.

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