Ruining Thanksgiving with Illustration

While looking at some illustrations by J.C.  Leyendecker, I was struck by this 1919 Saturday Evening Post cover. SEPCJCL First, I was impressed by the range of tones he produced with an extremely limited palette. Then I was troubled by Leyendecker's strangely shaped turkey. The small breasts, long legs, and peaking breastbone look weird. Is that some kind of pheasant? The kid looks excited, and it's a Thanksgiving cover, so we may assume that was a turkey- even an attractive turkey by 1919 standards. (Or, maybe he was just excited not to have shell-shock or Spanish Influenza. Count your blessings.) Let's look at a more familiar turkey:Norman-Rockwell-Freedom-from-WantNorman Rockwell's 1943 turkey looks much more familiar. A large bird with smaller legs and wings, and plump body. Also, it's apparently twice the size of the Leyendecker bird. Freedom From Want, indeed! That bird might destroy Fascism! Now let's fast forward to a more contemporary Turkey:butterball-turkey1This is a publicity image from Butterball, showing a nearly spherical bird with a carcass weight of up to 32 lbs. Scroll back up to Leyendecker's bird for some perspective here. This is a totally different class of bird. (Also, note the color and garnish similarities between this photo and Rockwell's iconic Freedom From Want image.) What happened? Breeding, and industrial agriculture have reshaped turkeys and also reshaped our expectations of them. It turns out Leyendecker's bird was normal. In 1919, Thanksgiving birds were what we now call "heritage breeds." These turkeys were closer to their wild ancestors- smaller, hardier, and allegedly tastier than modern turkeys. They have longer, thicker leg bones and much smaller breasts. They lived outside and were also capable of a range of bird-like behaviors like flying, foraging, roosting, and reproducing. Rockwell's bird was likely the Broad Breasted-Bronze, a large-breed turkey that was selected for size in 1930s and 40s. By the mid 20th Century, turkey was a huge business, and these large birds were more profitable to produce than their smaller predecessors. After WWII, as poultry moved to a fully industrialized model, (indoor pens, commercial feed, routine medication, artificial insemination) the giant Broad-breasted White breed was developed. This breed was selected almost exclusively for fast production of white breast meat. This is the ovoid behemoth that you and I know as turkey. Turkey farmer, Peter Davies writes, "This Twentieth Century transformation of the turkey has not been without its costs, however. Early in its transformation, the new turkey lost its ability to roost, eventually it could no longer mate, and today it can no longer fly or run.  Indeed, as it approaches market day, the turkey often suffers from leg and heart problems.  One Large White in our improvisational experiment, which could, at most, waddle as market day approached, dropped dead suddenly one afternoon, presumably from a heart attack." As I count my Thanksgiving blessings, I am very thankful that I do not have to artificially inseminate poultry. (Also that I've been spared from combat trauma and fatal pandemics.) With this in mind, Leyendecker's rangy 1919 bird looks like an image of health and prosperity.        
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