Turkey Tail Fan

 Turkey Tail Fan
This ca. 1885 hand fan is made of turkey tail feathers and features a braided rattan handle. It belonged to Magnolia Willis Sealy of Galveston.

In honor of Thanksgiving’s official mascot — the turkey — Rosenberg Library exhibited a late 19th century hand fan made of turkey tail feathers during the month of November. The fan belonged to Galveston socialite Magnolia Willis Sealy and was donated to the Library by Ella Sealy Newell.

Turkeys in America

Native to North America, wild turkeys were first domesticated by the Mesoamerican peoples of present-day Mexico around 800 B.C. These large birds were prized for their feathers which were used for bedding and personal adornment as well as for ceremonial purposes. When Spanish explorers arrived in the New World in the early 16th century, they encountered the exotic species and collected male and female turkeys to bring back to Europe for breeding purposes. Turkeys quickly became a popular source of food in Europe, especially in England.

 Turkey Tail Fan
Magnolia Willis Sealy (Mrs. George Sealy), 1854 – 1933.

Wild turkeys were admired by early American political leaders. Although Congress selected the bald eagle as the official symbol of the new nation in 1782, Benjamin Franklin felt an even greater fondness for the wild turkey. In a letter written to his daughter in 1784, Franklin expressed his view that in comparison to the bald eagle, the turkey was “a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” Franklin respected the animal’s courage and aggressive nature.

Turkeys are challenging to hunt due to their keen hearing and eyesight. They are able to fly up to 55 miles per hour and run 30 miles per hour. However, overhunting of wild turkey led to near-extinction in the United States by the early 20th century. In 1930, there were only 30,000 wild turkeys in America. Conservation efforts in subsequent decades have returned the population to nearly 5 million.

Compared to the wild turkeys consumed by Americans in the past, today’s domesticated turkeys are selectively bred to produce a larger size and yield a higher percentage of white meat. Nearly 250 million domesticated turkeys are produced annually in the United States. Since the 1850s, turkey has been the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving dinners in America.

Past Treasures