Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pageants and Greased Pigs: The Glorious, Complicated Fourth of July

John Lewis Krimmel, Fourth of July Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia (1819)
John Adams, writing to his wife Abigail in the summer of 1776, was certain that he had witnessed a day destined to be celebrated “as the great anniversary Festival.” “It ought to be commemorated,” he wrote, “as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Adams, of course, was talking about the 2nd of July, the day on which the Second Continental Congress had voted to approve a resolution of independence. Ultimately, Americans would come to celebrate on July 4th, the date shown on the copy of the Declaration of Independence that was made public. But Adams was right that Americans would commemorate their independence with “pomp and parade.” For much of the United States’ history, the Fourth of July has been one of the most significant holidays of the year.

Advertisement for Fourth of July
picnic in Cincinnati, 1877
(Library of Congress)
When William Miner was a boy, July Fourth celebrations, especially those in big cities, tended to separate along class and ethnic lines. Fraternal, labor, and ethnic organizations hosted their own festivities for their members, which included picnics, athletic competitions, and other boisterous amusements. Members of elite groups, such as the Society of the Cincinnati, attended official public ceremonies and private banquets. These more genteel citizens often criticized working-class celebrations as “reckless tomfoolery,” “lawless saturnalia,” and “desecrated by rowdyism.” By the end of the 19th century, municipal governments had begun to try to control holiday celebrations by enacting regulations on parades and the detonation of fireworks, and by increasing police patrols on the Fourth. They also began to sponsor their own Fourth of July celebrations, which helped maintain public order while also boosting the popularity of city officials. City governments organized “carnival processions, fireworks, balloon ascensions, picnics, dances, bicycle races, and athletic contests.”

Immigrant children in colonial pageant, Portland,
ca. 1926 (Maine Historical Society)

In the early 20th century, “growing fears about fires and vandalism, immigrant mobs, and injuries and accidents” coalesced with the emerging Progressive movement to create the “Safe and Sane July Fourth” campaign. Launched by the Playground Association of America, the Safe and Sane movement campaigned to ban the private sale of fireworks. However, leaders also recognized that they would have to provide alternative forms of entertainment. Their goal was to find activities that would appeal to a mass audience but still had some redeeming social value. Folk dancing, athletic drills, pageants, and crafts—especially those associated with the American past—were popular choices. Activities that incorporated lessons from history were seen as particularly valuable to the groups that playground and settlement workers aimed to reach: children and immigrants. 

These workers had much in common with proponents of the Colonial Revival movement, who also believed that the past had important lessons to teach the present. Here at the Alice, it sometimes feels like every day is the Fourth of July, surrounded as we are by images of George Washington and other reminders of early American history. But as we’ve seen, Independence Day has always been a lot more contested than these straightforward expressions of patriotism might suggest. Who celebrates the Fourth of July, and what form those celebrations take, can get pretty complicated.


Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, “Had a Declaration...” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 1990)

Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (Cambridge University Press, 1983)

Leah Weinryb Grohsgal, “Bonfires, Greased Pig Races, Pickle Contests, and More: Historic Fourth of July Celebrations from Chronicling America,” NEH Division of Preservation and Access.

No comments:

Post a Comment