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Victorian July Fourth Parades Lit Small Towns

Victorian July Fourth parades blossomed into yearly events in towns across America. Philadelphia celebrated the first annual commemoration of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1777 (signed in 1776). In the following years, the holiday gained popularity. By the early 1800s, parades, contests and games elevated the Fourth of July to a favorite holiday for many Americans.

Vintage July Fourth cards reflect the intensity of the celebrations across America.

Independence Day was declared a legal holiday on June 28, 1870.  According to the Library of Congress, even communities as far as the Western Front celebrated that day.

In its interviews of average citizens for the American Life Histories project, Miss Nettie Spencer recalled on December 15, 1938 that the Fourth of July was the biggest event of the year with floats and speeches.

“Just before lunch – and we’d always hold lunch up for an hour – some Senator or lawyer would speak. These speeches always had one pattern. First the speaker would challenge England to a fight and berate the King and say that he was a skunk. This was known as twisting the lion’s tail.

Then the next theme was that any one could find freedom and liberty on our shores. The speaker would invite those who were heavy laden in other lands to come to us and find peace. The speeches were pretty fiery and by that time the men who drank got into fights and called each other Englishmen.

In the afternoon we had what we called the ‘plug uglies’ — funny floats and clowns who took off on the political subjects of the day…The Fourth was the day of the year that really counted then. Christmas wasn’t much; a Church tree or something, but no one twisted the lion’s tail.”

Also documented in the American Life project are the Juneteenth celebrations that became community celebrations as early June 19, 1865 to mark the end of slavery in America. Victorian July Fourth parades like those for Juneteenth were grand affairs in most towns.

Following is a small  sampling of Victorian July Fourth parades from the late 1800s to early 1900s. Many of these photos have been preserved and catalogued thanks dedicated people in local historical societies across the United States. If you have historical photos you are willing to share, please contact Barbara Rose at the bottom of this post.

Victorian July Fourth Parades United Ashland, Oregon

Independence Day remains one of the biggest community holidays of the year in Ashland, Oregon. Author and Ashland resident Peter Finkle collected historical parade photos from the Ashland Library dating back to the 1890s.  That photo features a float in the shape of a battle-ship. It probably took place in 1898 “when America was in the middle of the short Spanish-American War,” he writes.  (April 21, 1898 to August 13, 1898.)

Half Moon Bay, California Celebrated the 114th Independence Day

The locals of Half Moon Bay held Victorian July Fourth Parades for years. On the 114th anniversary of Independence day, they hosted at least 300 visitors, according to June Morrall of Half Moon Bay Memories. A local newspaper called it one of the largest gatherings ever seen in the 1890s to celebrate the Fourth of July. Every house and business was decorated with flags from all over the world, streamers and bunting. Morrall writes:

“Promptly, at sunrise, early pioneer W.A. Simmons fired the town’s five pound cannon and led the national salute. Soon afterward, droves of folks arrived from the country in a holiday mood. Young and old dressed for the special occasion, filling Main Street, a dirt road then, as the popping sound of small firecrackers filled the air.”

“The crowd’s noise was muffled when the ceremonial unfurling of the flags began in unison from the roofs of the businesses on and around Main Street including Levy Brothers, R.I. Knapp’s Plow Factory, William Pringle’s Harness Shop, Boitano Brothers and Debenedetti’s.” 

The grand parade ended up at the local school where children presented “Colonial Times.” Thirteen girls dressed in white assembled on stage. Each wore a sash on which was printed the name of one of the original thirteen colonies.

Following recitations and band music a grand party was held at the Pacific Hall.

“At midnight the the ladies committee served a hot meal at the Ocean Shore Hotel…This Fourth of July was so much fun for everyone that no one wanted to leave until dawn approached.”

Sauk County, Wisconsin Started Celebrating In 1849

Then just a village, Reedsburg, Wisconsin held its first Independence Day celebration barely a year after its founding in 1849.

According to author Bill Schuette, the village had no flag and no pole. But the townspeople were an innovative lot and they were not going to miss the jubilee. Their story is chronicled in The American Sketch Book, History of Reedsburg – 1875.

“As the men commenced to locate and raise a “liberty pole” from which to fly the stars and stripes, the women went about trying to locate enough cloth from which a flag could be constructed. Since most of the men wore blue denims, it was a possible source of raw materials. However, after much wear, the denims lacked the color with which they were originally endowed. Buckskin patches were commonly sewn to the seats and knees of the pantaloons as reinforcements.

Seamstresses cut out the unfaded denim beneath these patches, and stars were formed from the bright blue fragments of cloth. The white stripes as well as a backing for the flag were made from the women’s undergarments. That left the red stripes. These were cut from the tails of the men’s shirts, shortening them a bit in the process. All the ingredients were present and the sewing began.”

The towns people were poor, so they pooled their ingredients and made one large feast for everyone.

Schuette writes that the nearby Baraboo pioneers celebrated in a more dangerous fashion.  An article by R.T. Warner in 1910, describes the tradition:

“In those days [c. 1852] we always had a big bonfire on the public square in the evening.  But they did have a novel sort of fireworks in those days, the throwing of fireballs.  They procured a large number of balls of candle wick which were soaked in turpentine and lighted and then all the boys and some of the men vied with one another in seeing how far and how high these blazing balls could be thrown. It took an expert to pick up a ball and throw it quick enough, to avoid being burned and blistered by the blazing fireballs.”

One of the burning balls lodged on the roof of the new courthouse, setting fire to the shingles.  But someone procured a ladder, carried up a bucket of water and extinguished the flames.

Happy July Fourth to all from Racing Nellie Bly.

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