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Historical Fourth of July Parades in New England

ParadeJane 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.

In the News

re: July 4, 1866 KEENE, NH: “Early in the morning, the Antiques and Horribles made their appearance and during the forenoon went through their accustomed evolutions with the precision and eclat usual with that distinguished corps.” – Keene Sentinel, July 12, 1866

re: July 4, 1873, KEENE, NH: “Extra police were on duty all night, and after the first few hours, the day passed off more quietly than usual. Late in the afternoon a small company of antiques and horribles promenaded our streets to the music of the fife and drum, and presented an appearance worthy their ancient and honorable name.” – Keene Sentinel, July 10, 1873

re: July 4, 1874, KEENE, NH: “The day was ushered in by the ringing of bells, the discharge of guns, while the boys did not forget their usual complement of tin horns, crackers, torpedoes, &c. At eight o’clock, the Antiques and Horribles made their appearance, on foot and mounted, and with very appropriate music paraded the streets in most martial order. At nine o’clock the most attractive part of the day’s proceedings began… ” more traditional parade with bands from Keene, Fitchburg, and Brattleboro, ball games, races, fireworks, etc.” – Cheshire Republican, Keene, NH, July 11, 1874

re: July 4, 1874, KEENE, NH: “The entertainments of the day were varied and pleasing, prominent among which was the parade of the ‘Horribles’ at eight o’clock in the morning. This company was organized at very short notice, but we doubt if they could have made a handsomer appearance, or performed their evolutions with more precision, had a longer time been occupied in preparation and drill. They represented a motley crew of all nationalities, mounted and on foot, yet they were evidently well bred, as am ore polite and gallant company never appeared in our midst. The band-chariot, drawn by handsome specimens of the bovine race contained a number of musicians who were assisted in their efforts to furnish suitable music by a first class organist, who with his instrument occupied the roof of the chariot. The fine specimens of horse flesh to be seen in the procession were greatly admired and attracted great attention. The deportment of the company was very creditable to the individual members, and we think all will agree in saying that much enjoyment was derived from their efforts to amuse the crowd.” – Keene Sentinel, July 9, 1874

re: July 4, 1876, KEENE, NH: “The observances of the Centennial Fourth in Keene began at an early hour with the ringing of bells and firing one hundred guns, which was followed by the gathering and parade of a troupe of antiques and horribles which formed in the stable yard at the Cheshire House and proceeded through the principal streets, halting at the Square, where an address in keeping with the costumes of the company was made by the “Great Unknown.” An open air concert of the Keene Brass Band was then given at the music stand on the Square occupying about an hour. The procession of the day was then formed and proceeded through the principal streets on the line of march indicated in the programme, the different bodies proceeding in the following order:” – Cheshire Republican, Keene, July 8, 1876

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