Historical Fourth of July Parades in New England
Jane C. Nylander is a well-established expert historian on New England domestic life and decorative arts,. Here, she shares a light-hearted historical look at Fourth of July Parades in New England.
The Horribles Parade Around Town
For hundreds of years, Americans have celebrated important occasions with parades. Marching soldiers, stirring music, colorful flags, groups of people of all ages and allegiances, and a variety of visually arresting floats have all been used to symbolize traditions and values that local residents hold dear.
Civic processions honor distinguished individuals, military processions display power, religious processions honor saints, and fraternal processions display the symbols and power of brotherhood. Political processions are pointedly partisan, while celebrations of national and local holidays express patriotic unity.
Celebrations of the Fourth of July have ebbed and flowed in popularity and extent, but they were usually noisy and have almost always included parades and fireworks. Colorful banners, succinct mottoes, and special costumes have given definition and emphasis to the participating groups.
In sharp contrast to the discipline and stirring music of marching groups or the visual beauty and high moral tone of the floats in the official processions are satirical parades of “antiques and horribles” that also march in some New England towns very early in the morning on the Fourth of July. These seem to have evolved sometime in the 1840s from the disorderly and drunken training days that characterized the last years of compulsory militia service.
The “antiques” were distinguished by various kinds of old moth-eaten uniforms, some of them dating as far back as 1776. In contrast, the “horribles” used elaborate costumes, masks, blackface, cross-dressing, and other disguise to illustrate gender and class reversal. Their satire and broad parody were often aimed at authority, women, and foreigners.
The best features or “hits” were immediately understood by the spectators, as participants mocked local police and politicians or illustrated current events. The topics have changed over the years, but they are still funny, aggressive, and critical.
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