I first learned this song from my old friend, Tim Leonard. The song is a tradition in his family and is attributed to their distinguished ancestor, the Reverend Doctor Thornton Bancroft Penfield (1867-1958). The Reverend Doctor was born to missionaries in India but grew up in the US, graduating from Columbia in 1890.
He wrote a fair amount of poetry and had a sense of humor. He did time as class poet at Columbia and he edited various college publications. He also published a book of poems called The Four-Leaved Clover.
After a bit of research, I’ve found that this was the Gay ’90s version of a meme, and that it appeared everywhere in ensuing decades. Like today’s memes, nailing down authorship is like nailing jello to a wall. I think the Penfield family’s oral tradition is as likely true as anything else.
Or rather, my limited research has failed to uncover any convincing alternatives.
My Previous Sighting and Attribution
Poking around on Google, I had found a partial version of “My Turkey ’tis of Thee” in the book The Lady of the Decoration by one Frances Little, a.k.a. Fannie Caldwell, or Mrs. J.D. Macaulay, published in 1906. Her book is essentially a diary of her exploits as a missionary to Japan in the early 1900s.
She refers to the song in a wistful Thanksgiving entry as “Jack’s famous parody.” Jack is apparently a childhood sweetheart she didn’t marry. Her husband’s name is “James.”
This isn’t exactly an attribution of authorship, although it was the earliest publication I had found that looked like one. Given that both the Penfields and Macaulays were involved in missionary work, no doubt the words were shared in that social circle.
The Lady of the Decoration became a bestseller. The author provided a first-hand account of life in Japan and eastern Russia at the time of the Russo-Japanese War. With the war and Roosevelt’s Nobel Peace Prize in the news, the book was a hit.
An Even Earlier Sighting (updated)
The Madison County (NY) Historical Society reproduced the song in its Fall ’13 newsletter (local copy) at the bottom of page 6. They had found a handwritten copy attached to an 1897 diary entry by Clarissa Brown Bliss (b. 1840) of Peterboro, NY. I wrote to the Society to ask if they thought Bliss had been the author, and here’s what they replied:
No, we were not attributing the origin of the poem/song to Clarissa Brown Bliss, we only indicated that we have found a poem written on a small piece of cardboard in the papers of Clarissa Brown Bliss. As we found many small notes in her hand on miscellaneous pieces of paper, she must have just jotted this poem down for to remember it. There is no indication that she composed the poem herself.
Thanks to the Madison County Historical Society’s Polly Held for that information.
I’m also finding a lot of postcards that display the words, like the one shown at the top dated 1910. Google uncovers numerous reprintings in college newspapers and such during the teens and 1920s.