In the early years of the new nation, the Federalist and Republican parties each infused Philadelphia’s public celebrations with political messages and symbolic meaning, a precedent that organizers of civic observances continued in the latter half of the 19th century. As both Philadelphia’s population and geographic limits expanded, efforts to centralize municipal government led to greater government control over public celebrations. Implicit in this control was the idea that such celebrations should elevate public taste and instruct rather than simply amuse, as celebratory rituals were intended to communicate certain social, political, and artistic values. Whether national holidays or special expositions, city elites strove to make civic observances representative of genteel culture and impose a single, united identity on Philadelphia’s increasingly disparate neighborhoods and peoples.
As Philadelphia’s population grew at a staggering rate to number nearly 2 million by 1920, its landscape and neighborhoods grew as well, sprawling over 120 square miles by the last decades of the 19th century. Due to this substantial growth, the city became more ethnically and racially segregated and so did its celebrations, which were often differentiated along class and ethnic lines. Different neighborhoods tended to follow their own calendars and modes of celebration, from Irish marching for St. Patrick’s Day to Poles commemorating the semi-centennial of the Polish Revolution. The George Washington Centennial Procession of 1832 was a rare exception to this trend, bringing together Irish, French, and German immigrant societies, as well as citizens from such outer lying townships as Northern Liberties, Southwark, and Moyamensing. The end of the Civil War in 1865 also inspired a city-wide celebration, which included a morning procession, speeches in the afternoon, and an evening banquet accompanied by fireworks. On the whole though, city-wide celebrations, save for the order of events, were loosely organized affairs that typically left participating groups to their own devices, including costumes and banners.
The celebrations of the 1876 Centennial Exposition followed a similar laissez-faire model, though a shift began in 1880 when Mayor Samuel H. King curtailed the detonation of fireworks and dispatched the city’s newly unified police force to impose order on public holidays. Two years later, city permits were required to stage parades and the focus turned towards large, urban carnivals to bring the city together rather than disparate, neighborhood celebrations. The commemoration of the Bicentennial of Pennsylvania in 1882 was the first such effort, a week-long program of parades, athletic contests, regatta on the Schuylkill River, and historical re-enactments that ended with a mass concert at the Academy of Music. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, many city-wide celebrations followed this trend, including the Centennial of the Constitution (1887), Peace Jubilee at the end of the Spanish-American War (1898), and the National Export Exposition (1899). Additionally, traditional celebrations like Independence Day also became more regimented, with the Philadelphia City Council overseeing events at both Independence Hall and nine other squares throughout the city. Notably, the day’s festivities, which included athletic competitions in Fairmount Park and fireworks over the Girard Avenue Bridge, followed a set schedule and were publicized in souvenir programs distributed across the city.
Without doubt, the high point of these coordinated, city-wide celebrations was Founder’s Week in 1908, which commemorated the 225th anniversary of Philadelphia’s founding. In an effort to elevate the week’s festivities and edify the public, local historian Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer organized a historical pageant that, with floats and live actors, followed the city’s history from “Exploration and Settlement” to “Civil War.” To emphasize artistic achievement and community solidarity, Oberholtzer selected Germantown muralist Violet Oakley to design the 68 floats and allowed ethnic organizations with ties to early settlers, such as Dutch and Germans, to participate only if they used official floats and costumes. On the whole, the pageant, which processed down Broad Street for four miles through Central Philadelphia, presented a truncated view of the city’s history that largely excluded both African-Americans and any ethnic groups beyond the earliest settlers and stressed allegiance to the city above all other ties. Oberholtzer later organized the Historical Pageant Association of Philadelphia with the purpose of producing a pageant every four years, but the Association’s initial 1912 production in Fairmount Park proved less successful, limited both by location and competing Columbus Day festivities. On the whole, pageant attendance was mediocre and the production ultimately produced a $15,000 deficit, a financial failure that dampened enthusiasm for both historical pageants and city-wide celebrations.
In the following decade, other notable public festivities included a downtown parade for World War I troops and the Sesquicentennial International Exposition in 1926, though city elites were now largely absent from the planning process. As popular culture turned towards more commercial, mass entertainment, less emphasis was ultimately placed on the educational value of public festivities, even as celebrations continued to have popular appeal in Philadelphia well into the 20th century.
Scott Bruce, It Happened in Philadelphia (Guilford, CT: Morris Book Publishing, 2008).
David Glassberg, “Public Ritual and Cultural Hierarchy: Philadelphia’s Civic Celebrations at the Turn of the 20th Century,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 107 no. 2 (July 1983): 421-448.
Edwin Wolf, Philadelphia: Portrait of an American City (Philadelphia, PA: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1990).