In 1873, Henry Vose, the so-called poultry king of Rhode Island, began to supply Thanksgiving turkeys to the White House, the start of a 40-year tradition. The first president to receive one of Vose’s renowned fowls was Ulysses S. Grant. The tradition continued until Vose’s death in 1913, when Woodrow Wilson was president.
Subsequent presidents continued to receive turkeys as gifts. In the early 1920s, a Chicago girls club sent Warren Harding a prize turkey that they had fattened up on chocolates. Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, received turkeys, quail, ducks, geese, rabbits and a deer.
The Coolidge family were the recipients, too, of the oddest gift intended for a First Family’s Thanksgiving dinner. In 1926, a raccoon arrived at the White House from Mississippi along with the sender’s assurances that the animal had a “toothsome flavor.” The Coolidges declined to eat the Thanksgiving raccoon and instead turned it into a pet, which they named Rebecca.
If the president of the United States could pardon a raccoon, why not a turkey? The origin of the presidential pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey, now an annual ceremony on the White House lawn, is something of a mystery. Some trace it back to Lincoln, who is said to have issued a reprieve to a turkey named Jack that had been earmarked for Christmas dinner. When young Tad Lincoln objected, the president let Jack live.
The late 1940s saw the beginning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation ceremony, in which the National Turkey Federation or another industry group donates a Thanksgiving turkey to the White House — and not so incidentally provides a nice holiday photo-op for the president. At first, the president would occasionally pardon the bird, but it wasn’t until George H. W. Bush became president that the turkey pardon turned into an annual event. Bush granted the pardon as animal rights activists were picketing nearby.