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Traditional American Thanksgiving in Art and Song

by Helen Breen

Among America’s most beloved 19th century renderings of Thanksgiving Day are Currier & Ives lithographs, Grandma Moses’s paintings, and Lydia Marie Child’s famous poem/song “Over the River and Through the Wood.”



Currier and Ives famous lithograph “Home for Thanksgiving” was copied widely, including by Grandma Moses. (Courtesy of springfieldmuseum)

Currier & Ives was a tremendously successful printmaking firm, based in New York, in the latter part of the 19th century that catered to the sentimental taste of Victorians. Between Nathaniel Currier’s (1813-1888) artistic talent and his partner James Merritt Ives’s (1824-1895) business acumen, some 7,500 lithographs were produced in the company’s 72 years of operation. The enterprise employed many artists to churn out depictions of idealized American life that were sold inexpensively to adorn the homes of a growing middle class. Country scenes, and particularly winter landscapes, were especially popular.


“American Homestead Winter” is an example of a popular Currier & Ives lithograph, an “authorized copy” of an original work created by an artist or other skilled craftsmen. (Courtesy of Pinterest.com)


(Photo courtesy of currierives.blogspot.com)

Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives described their firm as “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Prints.” According to one source, “Artists produced two to three new images every week for 64 years (1834–1895),[9] producing more than a million prints by hand-colored lithography. Small works sold for five to twenty cents each, and large works sold for $1 to $3 apiece.”



“Home for Thanksgiving” by Grandma Moses (Courtesy of robertneralich.com)

Grandma Moses (1860-1961) was born Anna Mary Robertson in Greenwich, New York. She was the third of twelve children whose father often bought blank newspaper for the children to draw on. At twelve she became a “hired girl” at local farms. In 1887 she married a farm worker Thomas S. Moses and had ten children, five of whom died at birth. In 1907 the family moved to Eagle Bridge, New York where Grandma Moses spent the rest of her life. After her husband’s death in 1927, she lived with her son on the farm and embroidered pictures in yarn in her spare time. At age 76, because of arthritis, she began to paint often using Currier and Ives prints and scenes from her childhood as inspiration.


Grandma Moses produced some 1500 paintings in her later years. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In 1938 Louis Caldor, an art collector, “discovered” her work in the window of a Hoosick Falls drugstore. The next day he purchased all of her paintings, and arranged a showing in New York which brought her instantaneous fame. Grandma Moses worked from memory “portraying people actively engaged in farm tasks … as part of the established order of seasonal patterns.” Thanksgiving was one of her favorite motifs, celebrating family reunions, often with turkeys in the background trying to escape their fate.


“Thanksgiving Turkey” Grandma Moses



Lydia Marie Child captured the spirit of an American Thanksgiving in her famous poem. She wears a white lace cap, typical of the period. (Courtesy of famousbirthdays.com)

Lydia Marie Child (1802-1889) was an American abolitionist, women’s right activist, novelist, and journalist. Yet her most enduring work was her poem “Over the River and Through the Wood” based on her early 19th century memory of visiting her grandparents’ home near the Mystic River in Medford, Massachusetts. The poem, later set to music, was originally published in 1844 in Child’s “Flowers for Children.”

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way
To carry the sleigh
Through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather’s house away!
We would not stop
For doll or top,
For ‘t is Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood,
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes,
And bites the nose,
As over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood,
With a clear blue winter sky,
The dogs do bark,
And children hark,
As we go jingling by.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To have a first-rate play —
Hear the bells ring
Ting a ling ding,
Hurra for Thanksgiving day!

Over the river, and through the wood —
No matter for winds that blow;
Or if we get
The sleigh upset
Into a bank of snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To see little John and Ann;
We will kiss them all,
And play snowball,
And stay as long as we can.

Over the river, and through the wood,
Trot fast my dapple gray!
Spring over the ground,
Like a hunting-hound,
For ‘t is Thanksgiving day!

Over the river, and through the wood,
And straight through the barnyard gate;
We seem to go
Extremely slow,
It is so hard to wait.

Over the river, and through the wood —
Old Jowler hears our bells;
He shakes his pow, [sic]
With a loud bow-wow,
And thus the news he tells.

Over the river, and through the wood —
When Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, Oh dear,
The children are here,
Bring a pie for every one.

Over the river, and through the wood —
Now Grandmothers cap I spy!
Hurra for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurra for the pumpkin pie!


“Over the River to Grandmother’s House” by Grandma Moses (Courtesy of gseart.com)

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