Turkeys have long been linked to Washington, D.C. (ahem, ahem). But the origin of the annual presidential Thanksgiving turkey pardon in the Rose Garden is frequently misrepresented.
In the 1870s, Horace Vose, a Rhode Island poultry dealer, began sending Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys to the first family and reaped tons of publicity. He became the unofficial supplier for the next 40+ years, establishing the Turkey–White House connection.
Harry Truman is often erroneously credited with the first turkey pardon. Truman was the initial recipient of a turkey from the Poultry and Egg Board and the National Turkey Federation in 1947. Truman’s administration had been encouraging “poultryless Thursdays” for several months. Outraged poultry growers sent crates of live chickens — “Hens for Harry” — to the White House in protest. Peace was eventually restored, and a turkey was presented to the White House for promotional purposes … and later devoured.
In 1963, upon seeing that year’s turkey sporting a “Good eating, Mr. President” sign, President Kennedy proposed, “Let’s keep him going.” The Washington Post used the word “pardon” in their article covering the occasion, but President Kennedy didn’t utter it.
George H. W. Bush, in 1989, became the first president to “officially” pardon a White House turkey. An animal rights group was protesting the event, and Bush stated that “he [the turkey] will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” A turkey (or two) has breathed a sigh of relief each year ever since.