Early Takes on the Turkey

Before the turkey became the top-heavy symbol of consumption, it was the very image of the New World and America.  It comes as no surprise to me that Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey over the eagle as the symbol and embodiment of the new nation, writing to his daughter in 1784 that I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of AmericaHe is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” A true original Native of America, like the pumpkin, the pineapple, and the porcupine, once-exotic entities that became more familiar and “domestic” with the passage of time.

The Turkey is a conspicuous image on this seventeenth-century map of Dutch America by William Blaeu, along with its equally American badgers.  Europeans had already come to identify this flamboyant bird with the New World, perhaps because of its earlier inclusion (along with lots of other American animals) in Konrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium (1551-1587).

Turkeys are all over the place in the seventeenth century:  in paintings and prints, and even on pottery.  One of the most beautiful representations is not European at all, but an Indian painting of the turkey brought to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s court menagerie by a European embassy;  clearly the turkey had a global reputation by this time.

Ustad Mansur, circa 1612. Victoria and Albert Museum

Here are some more seventeenth-century images of the exotic bird:  a drawing by an anonymous Dutch artist from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and two chalk drawings from the British Museum.  The “turkey-cock” in the center was drawn by Dutch artist Jan Griffier as a study for a later painting (see below), while the last turkey resided in another royal menagerie:  that of King Louis XIV at Versailles.

And here is Griffier’s paining, completed in the first decade of the eighteenth century.  The turkey is shown along with other birds that are not native to Britain, where Griffier lived and worked. So it was apparently still a rare and cosmopolitan specimen, and a symbol of wealth and conspicuous consumption.

Jan Griffier, A Turkey and other Fowl in a Park, 1710. Tate Collection.

I don’t usually think of the turkey as “song bird”, but a particularly beautiful illustration of a “crested turkey cock” is included in Eleazer Albin’s three-volume History of English song-birds, and such of the Foreign as are usually brought over and Esteemed for their Singing (1741).

Indeed, by the time we get to Benjamin Franklin’s day, the general depiction of the turkey is one of an elegant and exotic bird, resident in all the best landscape parks.  Hardly a modern turkey.  I’m beginning to think that the long decline of the Ottoman Empire, accompanied by satirical characterizations of its most central country, led to the deterioration of the bird’s image as well.  Caricatures of the bird/country (like those below) begin to be a lot more prevalent than naturalist ones (like those above) after the turn of the nineteenth century.

You get the general idea:  poor Turkey/turkey being carved up and threatened by the European powers in British Museum satirical prints from 1802, 1803, and 1828:  I could download many more.  Franklin’s “courageous” bird is noble no more; maybe this is what happens when you take something out of its native environment!

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