NEW YORK — Once upon a time, malls and stores decorated for Thanksgiving with elaborate animatronic displays populated by turkeys, pilgrims and food-laden cornucopias. Now, most stores move directly from Halloween to Christmas with their decorative schemes, skipping Thanksgiving entirely. But the story is different in the homes of their customers, many of whom mark Thanksgiving by welcoming friends and family for a feast. They express their thanks, in part, by decorating for the holiday, even if it’s only at the dinner table.
Thanksgiving celebrations are about sharing the day with loved ones — and food, of course, with a generous helping of football thrown in for good measure. Vintage decorations, from serving pieces and candles to turkey-themed platters, can make the day seem even more special.
Dinner services emblazoned with Thanksgiving imagery provide an excellent and natural entry point for a collector. Several companies have issued Thanksgiving transferware china sets, including Limoges, Wedgwood and Johnson Brothers. Vintage examples in like-new condition can realize decent prices at auction, such as a Spode Thanksgiving dinner set that brought $875 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at Broken Arch Auction Gallery. It included a large serving platter and 12 plates.
Royal Doulton holiday-themed figurines are popular and Thanksgiving is, of course, a favored subject. Most people are only familiar with its Thanksgiving figurine of an overalls-clad farmer sitting next to a turkey, which was made in the 1970s. A prototype of a Pilgrim woman figure exists, proving that at least once, the company considered adding another design, but little information or images of it can be found online. A Royal Doulton prototype figurine, possibly named Turkey Dinner and marked on the bottom as a prototype, earned $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2020 at Lion and Unicorn. Prototype Royal Doulton figures are always highly desirable owing to their rarity.
Figurines and small sculptures make for good Thanksgiving decorations and take up little room. One of the most endearing varieties is the Simpich character dolls that were made in the United States from the late 1950s to 2005. Boasting upturned faces and ruddy cheeks, a group of eight Simpich Thanksgiving dolls, dressed as pilgrims and Native Americans, brought $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022 at Grant Zahajko Auctions, LLC. The Simplich company, run by a husband-and-wife team in Missouri, was already making molded and painted Christmas dolls when it released Thanksgiving versions in late 1958, a time when such decorations were not that popular. Though the dolls and clothing were said to be painstaking to make, they were a hit, so the Simpiches continued to produce them. By the mid-1960s, customers endured a wait of three to six years to receive an order.
German candy containers, made circa 1910-40s for the American market, were festooned with themed imagery celebrating nearly every major holiday that could be commercialized. There were rabbits for Easter, pumpkins and witches for Halloween and of course, plump turkeys for Thanksgiving. A papier-mache turkey candy container and early tin turkey on wheels, both marked “Made in Germany,” sold together for $950 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2018 at Dan Morphy Auctions. The papier-mache turkey probably was a skittles toy, and the tin turkey flaps its wings when pulled.
Thanksgiving decorative pieces won’t want for fans provided they are small enough to be grouped in a pleasing arrangement on a mantel or the buffet table; better still if they can serve double duty as holders for place cards during fancier occasions. A collection of six hand-painted Thanksgiving-themed Limoges porcelain boxes in the form of roasted and live turkeys sold for $425 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022 at Link Auction Galleries.
In October of 1789, President George Washington signed the first Thanksgiving proclamation for the United States. He encouraged people to enjoy “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” In October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official holiday, in gratitude for a key Union Army victory at Gettysburg.
While Thanksgiving is decidedly more secular today, the spirit of gratitude thrives, and vintage Thanksgiving decor can enhance the charm and warmth of the celebration.