Impressions of Washington: A Georgetown Fourth of July in the 1850s

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Fourth of July fireworks over National Mall. (Photo source: Library of Congress on Flickr)Fireworks displays like this weren't a "thing" in the 1850s, but Georgetowners found other ways to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday. (Photo source: Library of Congress on Flickr)
With the Fourth of July festivities just around the corner, area residents are preparing for the merriment in all sorts of ways.

What is your pleasure? Grilling out at Gravelly Point? A backyard gathering with family and friends? Braving the crowds on the National Mall to watch the fireworks? Or maybe you are more of the stay-at-home type. If so, we recommend watching the A Capitol Fourth concert on WETA Television. We hear it’s really good.

Well, 150 years ago, there weren’t so many options but Washingtonians still put on quite a celebration for the nation’s birthday. Check out this account from William A. Gordon, who grew up in Georgetown during the 1850s.

The Fourth of July was a great day, and for many years was celebrated at Parrott’s Woods, now the site of Oak Hill Cemetery. All the Protestant Sunday Schools participated. In the morning they met at the various churches, and then uniting marched to the grounds headed by a band. Each school had a distinctive color, red, blue, green, yellow, and white, and each scholar was decorated with a rosette of the same. Each school had its banner, and to be a banner bearer was considered a great honor. Heading the different schools were two boys, called “pivot boys,” bearing small flags, and on turning a corner these boys crossed their flags and the schools marched under them. On arriving at the woods the day was celebrated. Patriotic songs were sung, the Star Spangled Banner never being omitted, and addresses made by young college graduates. Later in the day speeches were made by the elders. Townsmen of all classes participated, and barrels of lemonade and abundance of eatables of every kind were provided; everything was free and all were welcomed. After a somewhat strenuous day parents and children returned home tired out but patriotically happy.[1]

Sounds kind of tame and academic compared to today’s activities. And, when most of us think about the Fourth of July now, we don’t necessarily associate the holiday with churches or schools as it seems was the case in Gordon’s day. But really, it’s not all that different when you think about it. Then as now, the nation’s birthday was marked with lots of food, lots of civic pride, and lots of patriotism.

Plus, Gordon also remembered that “The needs of the town required many taverns.” Add a few thousand of dollars worth of fireworks to that and it sounds more like what this Fourth will be for many Washingtonians.



[1] Gordon, William A. "Recollections of a Boyhood in Georgetown." Records of the Columbia Historical Society. (1917): 121-140.