Independence Day: Fourth of July Bostonians Memories

In 1899 The Boston Globe recalled Independence Day or Fourth of July celebrations remembered by Bostonians from years earlier. These memories included banquets, patriotic speeches, parades, firecrackers, and fireworks. Bostonians also reminisced that the celebrations 50, 60, and even 70 years ago were as noisy as they were in the present day of 1899.

Celebrating Independence Day. Author’s collection.

The memories told by venerable Bostonians about Independence Day celebrations were published in The Boston Globe on 2 July 1899. Here is that article nearly verbatim:

“[Bostonians] were themselves enthusiastic participants in the demonstrations that marked the popular appreciation of the significance of Independence Day. It was always ‘Independence Day’ and not Fourth of July, and occasionally you will hear some veteran of the early times grumble against the change in the name of the glorious anniversary.

Lucius Slade, the venerable merchant, came to Boston from New Hampshire some 55 years ago. His earliest recollections of Independence Day celebrations go back to the days on his father’s farm.

‘When that morning came around,’ he says, ‘folks would be awakened by the rattle of musketry if they weren’t already up. We used to get the old gun and load it up and bang away with it, trying to make as much noise as possible. I didn’t see many firecrackers in those days, but what there were would look very small if compared with the giant crackers of today.

I think we boys of 70 years ago got as much fun with a good deal less noise and danger out of Fourth of July than boys of today. The spirit of everybody then, while jolly enough, for all enjoyment, was more serious and grave. The reason for this, perhaps, was the nearness of the people to the fact of independence itself, and the day for them had a living significance.

I doubt if the boys growing up today appreciate the meaning of the celebration as much as we did. They make more noise today, but they haven’t any more patriotism than we had when about all we could was fire off the old musket and hurrah for freedom and the country.’

Mr. William H. Baldwin [Sr.],* the president of the Young Men’s Christian union, was born in what is now Boston, in Brighton, and he remembers the Fourth of July celebrations of 65 years ago. He says:

‘We boys used to anticipate the pleasure of the old Fourth of July, when the small cannon and simple fireworks were freely used and often with physical injuries attending the ignorant use of powder.

Independence Day Celebration

Boys celebration Independence Day. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

I well remember when we boys came in from Brighton to see the fireworks on Boston common, oftentimes walking home from Boston for lack of any public conveyance to carry us home.

My impression is that there was as much fun in those early days with much less noise and disturbance to both sick and well on the night before the Fourth as there is now.’

Mr. Joseph A. Williard, the clerk of the superior court, has a vivid recollection of the keen enjoyment he took in the celebration of the Fourth in the early 40s.

‘There was a man named Barrell who kept a little store on Washington St. and a great crowd of us boys brought our fireworks there. He had torpedoes and firecrackers, but they were so small and made so little noise as compared with the fireworks of today that I have no doubt that any self-respecting boy of these times wouldn’t condescend to use them. But they were all we had, and we enjoyed them.

There wasn’t nearly so much noise and racket in those days. The firecrackers and fireworks were left to the boys, and the older folks made the day one of enjoyment and rest and recreation. The militia companies paraded, and there was much public oratory.

What I recollect particularly is that all of us understood very clearly and appreciated the meaning of the celebration. We knew it was Independence Day and that it commemorated liberty and independence, and I won’t say that we didn’t commit a great many mischievous pranks because we knew it was a day of liberty.’

Dr. Samuel A. Green,† ex-mayor of Boston, remembers the Independence Day of 60 years very well. He was then a little boy in the town of Groton. ‘We were awakened in the morning, he says, ‘by the ringing of the bells, which lasted long enough to wake up everybody.

 

Samuel A. Green. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

There was an artillery company in the town, and they began to fire about the time that the bells began to ring. We boys thought the noise was glorious and we never missed it.

There were two military companies in Groton that we called the Slambangs. They wore no uniforms but assembled on the green in ordinary clothes and with possibly a military belt. But they were gotten up so plainly and as we boys though, so inadequately, that we called them the Slambangs. They were slambanged together, as it were. These companies paraded and we boys always marched beside them and thought ourselves heroic, no doubt.

The firecrackers that we had were very small and nobody was wasteful of them. I doubt if any boy of my acquaintance exploded more than a package of firecrackers in one day. A package of firecrackers cost 6 1/4 cents. There was a little silver piece called four-pence-ha’penny. This was worth 6 1/4 cents. Two four-pence ha’pennies made a nine-pence, two of which were equal to a quarter. We could buy two packages of firecrackers for ninepence and four for a quarter.

Rum flowed very freely on Independence Day in those times, and a great many people drank freely of it. Nobody seemed to lose caste by appearing in public on an occasion like Independence Day with a good deal more rum in than he could carry conveniently.

There was a great deal of public speaking, and there was an effort always to get the best talent available. The one theme then was the glory of liberty and independence. People were never tired of that subject, and the prominent heroes of the revolution were constantly referred to by name, and their example was pointed out for the rising generation to emulate.

At that time there were many survivors of the revolution. They were all old men, but many of them were active and hearty. I myself knew well at least half a dozen old men who had been good soldiers in’ and the revolution. They were never known as veterans, but always as ‘pensioners and the term was an honorable one, and used always as a dignified and complimentary designation.

These pensioners were very much in evidence on Independence Day. They were always around when the cannon was booming and the orators were speaking, and we all felt that they were a very necessary part of the celebration. Often they had reminiscences of war that thrilled us boys tremendously, and their stories of battle and hardship were received with great interest and respect.

On Independence Day there was always a big dinner after the parade and the oratory and the noise in the morning. This dinner usually was held in a grove in the open air or under a great tent in the field. The toasts were numerous and frequent, and everybody came away with the inner man fully satisfied.

For songs, the people had a long list of patriotic ballads and odes, and we boys, I remember, used to be very fond of a song called ‘Adams and Liberty,’ which extolled the virtues of the great patriot and described the glories of freedom. The name of Adams was a very popular one, and its mention always was the signal for hearty applause.

[President] John Adams, by the way, believed in the most enthusiastic celebration of Independence Day, and he suggested how the day should be spent, a suggestion which in part at least Young America has approved and carried out. He suggested that the early part of the day should be given over to solemn acts of devotion. Then he said the days should be commemorated ‘with pomp, parade, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one of end of the continent to the other for evermore.’ Of the first celebration of a Fourth of July by the continental congress, Adams in writing to his daughter, said: ‘The people shouted and huzzahed in a way to strike utmost terror to every lurking tory. There was a splendid illumination and while a few surly houses were dark, the show would have given King George heartache.

I believe the most serious and significant Fourth of July that I ever celebrated was in 1866, when the Young Men’s Democratic club of Boston, with William C. Williamson as president, held a big meeting at Tremont temple, and then marched down to the [Paul] Revere house for dinner. I was one of the marshals on that occasion, and it was an important turnout. Of course, the stirring subject of discussion that year as the union, and I remember the meeting attracted a good deal of attention.’

Many men active in Boston today go back farther than 60 years. Edward Everett Hale§ tells of one of the earliest Fourth of July celebrations of his remembrance. It was that of the year 1833, and on that day for the first time a great chorus of school children sang, ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.’ Dr. Hale’s remembrance of the particular day is sharpened by the fact that he was rendered extremely uncomfortable by large doses of candy and ‘pop,’ which then as now were boyish delights.

Edward Everett Hale. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

He speaks of a favorite poem of that day which was much in evidence on the Fourth. It was written by Royall Tyler, and its beginning was: ‘Squeak the fife and beat the drum, Independence Day has come.’

Independence Day - Royall Tyler

Royall Tyler. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was just about this time that the character of the celebration of the anniversary of the birthday of American independence began to change. Parades were held as usual, but noise began to take the place of speeches, and in the large towns of the reading of the declaration of independence, which had always been a feature of the celebrations.

Independence Day

The United States Declaration of Independence. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The opening of trade with China brought in the small firecrackers, and American factories soon found the means of making big ones. Noise assumed the scepter and has reigned ever since.

Hon. George S. Boutwell, who has held so many distinguished stations in public life, spent much of his boyhood in the town of Lunenburg, where patriotism always was very strong. ‘Fourth of July,’ he says, ‘was a real holiday for me because on that day, when I was a youngster I was permitted to drive over with my brother to see my grandfather, who lived a few miles away. I confess that I shared the riotous spirit of my comrades when Independence Day came around, and that we made noise and got into mischief just as boys do today.

George S. Boutwell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the earliest speeches on a Fourth of July occasion that I took the trouble to listen to was by Alexander H. Stephens and the recollection has remained with me to this day. In 1840 I heard what was probably one of the first speeches made by a man who became very noted in the politics of the country.

It was Independence Day and there was a customary gathering to listen to the customary speeches. A young man named Kelley took the platform and spoke to the audience. H was a young artisan who had learned a trade, and was getting interested in politics.

In later years was Congressman William D., often known as ‘Pig Iron’ Kelley,** from Pennsylvania, and I never saw him in Washington when he had risen to distinction without thinking of the day when I heard hi deliver what was one of his earliest efforts in politics.

Independence Day - William D. Kelley

William D. Kelley. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In those early days there was more oratory than anything else in the observance of Independence Day. It was a great day for public speaking, and my opinion is that today there is a good deal less public speaking on Fourth of July, in country places at least, than there was when I was a boy.

I am not inclined to think that the people of that time were more patriotic than the people are today for I believe that the great mass of American citizens are today full of patriotic spirit, and that all the noise, oftentimes distressing of present day celebration of Fourth of July, is not without meaning and sentiment.’”[1]


* William Henry Baldwin Sr. was father to William Henry Baldwin Jr., an American railroad executive and philanthropist who served as president of the Long Island Railroad and was instrumental in establishing African American industrial education by securing donations from Northern industrial magnates. In addition, Baldwin Jr. became a trustee of Tuskegee University and worked with Booker T. Washington.
† Samuel A. Green was an American physician turned politician from Massachusetts. He served as a medical officer during the American Civil War and was mayor of Boston in 1882.
“Adams and Liberty” is considered the first significant campaign song in American political history and served to support Federalist John Adams in the 1800 United States presidential election. The lyrics come from Robert Treat Paine, Jr.’s tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which is the same tune that would become the U.S.’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
§ Edward Everett Hale was an American author, historian, and Unitarian minister, best known for his writings in support of the Union side during the American Civil War. He was the grand-nephew of Nathan Hale, the American spy during the American Revolution War. Edward Everett Hale married Emily Baldwin Perkins in 1852. She was the niece of Connecticut Governor and U.S. Senator Roger Sherman Baldwin and Emily Pitkin Perkins Baldwin on her father’s side and on her mother’s side she was related to Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and Henry Ward Beecher.
Royall Tyler was an American jurist and playwright. Born in Boston, he graduated from Harvard University in 1775, and served in the Massachusetts militia during the American Revolution. He was admitted to the bar in 1780, became a lawyer, and in 1801, the same year that Eliza de Feuillide’s son Hastings died, Tyler was appointed a Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. He wrote a play that was produced in 1787 and appeared shortly after George Washington’s inauguration as president. It was considered the first American comedy and Tyler became a literary celebrity.
George S. Boutwell was an American politician, lawyer, and statesman from Massachusetts who served as Secretary of the Treasury, 20th Governor of Massachusetts, and Senator and Representative from Massachusetts. He was also the first Commissioner of the Internal Revenue and lead prosecutor in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.
** William D. Kelley was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. As an abolitionist, he was one of the founders of the Republican Party in 1854 and a friend of Abraham Lincoln. He was also a man of strict principles. He advocated the recruitment of black troops in the American Civil War and wanted to extend the vote to them afterwards. His belief in protective tariffs was so extreme that he refused to wear a single imported garment.

Reference:

  • [1] The Boston Globe, “Fourth of Years Ago,” July 2, 1899, p. 25.

3 Comments

  1. Don Nitkin on July 4, 2022 at 5:49 pm

    Once again, an interesting piece. I could visualize the celebrations. I only visited Boston once, but I was able to see some historic sites. I am originally from Philadelphia and have see the historic sites there,

    • Geri Walton on July 6, 2022 at 10:26 am

      I’ve been to Boston twice but haven’t been to Philadelphia, which is on my list to visit.

  2. Don Nitkin on July 6, 2022 at 12:13 pm

    I am from Philly. I have lived in Connecticut, Vermont, and Michigan. Three years in France with the army, I have been to most big cities in the US, Canada, and Europe. Great at those times but not recommended, No roots.

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