A century ago, Columbus Day was not just an excuse for a three-day weekend; it was a serious national holiday demanding intense preparations on the part of local officials all over the country. I found two little descriptive articles about the Columbus Day celebration here in Salem in the digital archives of the Essex Institute Historical Collections, a long-running (1853-1993) journal of local and regional history that ceased publication after the merger of the Essex Institute and the Peabody Essex Museum. Both articles are from 1892, a particularly intense Columbian year due to the 400th anniversary of the voyage and the upcoming Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The first article is a virtually a minute-by-minute account of the Columbus Day celebration in Salem, including all the performances given by schoolchildren in every Salem school as well as the speeches (word for word) given by their various principals. These speeches all stress bravery (the “flat earth myth” established earlier in the century by Washington Irving is certainly reinforced), patriotism, and in an odd sort of way, diversity: Columbus was the first immigrant! After a day full of activities around town, the celebration of Columbus in Salem ended with a huge parade, in which every civic institution and group in the city marched. How interesting that the big October parade in Salem now is in recognition of Halloween rather than Columbus.
The other article is all about preparations for the Columbian Exposition on the part of officials of the city and the Essex Institute. Each state at the Exposition was to have its own representative house full of exhibits, and though a reproduction of the eighteenth-century Thomas Hancock house by the Boston architects Peabody & Stearns was going to be the Massachusetts House (rather than a distinctive “Salem House” in the seventeenth-century or McIntire style), the city of Salem was to be responsible for assembling an exhibition for the main reception room, so there was much discussion of what to send and how to send it. A selection of “portraits, paintings of old houses, Salem views suitably bound in albums, and historical relics” was chosen, put on display at W.H. Gardener’s Store on Essex Street for public approval, and then sent off to Chicago. Another difference in emphasis in the past as compared to the present: the focus was clearly on representing colonial Salem rather than global Salem.
Addendum: Apparently Christopher Columbus was embraced by all immigrant groups, not just Italian-Americans–a song sheet from 1893.