In recent years, Salem has put on an amazing fireworks display for the Fourth, before that it was BIG blazing bonfires, and before that it was LONG orations–sometime competing long orations. These speeches were always given by “notable” men, sometimes from Salem, and always from Massachusetts. I went through a succession of these speeches–which used to run to an hour and more by all accounts–to try to pick out some themes beyond a general patriotism. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, it’s all about competing visions for the country by the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Federalists, a more unified message emerges with the onset of war with Britain in the next decade, and then gradually we move towards abolitionism and nativism: sometimes together. We get occasional glimpses of other aspects of celebration/commemoration in the first half of the nineteenth century (see 1808 below), but mostly what is recorded are WORDS.
Printed Independence Day Orations from Salem, and the arrangements for the Federalists’ holiday in 1808, with dinner at the “new” Assembly House: Hamilton Hall. I am wondering if the Benjamin Peirce of 1812 is the Benjamin Peirce of 1775–he would have been 74 years old.
I found it surprising that there was STILL animosity towards Britain more than a decade after the War of 1812 was over–this must be a reflection of the damage the war caused to Salem’s trade and position. The Reverend Henry Colman tried to smooth feathers in his 1826 oration: I am aware of the extreme and bitter diversity of opinion which prevailed among her best citizens in regard to the recent war. But at this distance of time we can view the subject calmly and weigh its merits with justice, candid minds, whatever may be their views of its expedience or management, will find it difficult to doubt that the motives in which it originated with were patriotic…..And unsuccessful as it may be deemed by any in the attainment of its avowed objects, the country came out of it, bringing new trophies of an illustrious heroism, and of a devotion to what many might reasonably deem the cause of liberty and right, worthy of those who hold alliance to the heroes of the revolution”.
Nearly twenty years later—-looking backward from my privileged perspective— it looks like we are gearing up for yet another war with Anson Burlingame’s 1854 Salem oration. Burlingame was a Massachusetts politician who was fiercely patriotic, abolitionist, and anti-Catholic all at the same time. A few years after he gave this Salem speech, he called South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks “the vilest sort of coward” for his brutal assault on Senator Charles Sumner, after which Brooks challenged him to duel to which he himself failed to appear, thus proving Burlingame correct! His Fourth of July speech seems to be more passionately Nativist than Abolitionist, and it inspired an amazing satire, also published in 1854: Corporal Pitman’s Great Oration, Pronounced on Salem Common July 4, 1854, a speech that was never given.
Anson Burlingame’s Salem speech, 1854, and his defense of Sumner and Massachusetts on the floor of the House of Representatives, 1856; a satire of the former by “Corporal Pitman”, which reads like it would be quite a performance.
I think the truly celebratory Fourth that we enjoy today is rooted in that of the Centennial–in which the whole city was festooned: speeches were certainly made, but the emphasis was more on actions: particularly a city-wide procession.
1876 and this morning: when it was so hot we could barely stand to stay outside for the 7 (???) minutes or so it took to listen to the reading of the Declaration of Independence. I like how everyone is lining up in the shade, like soldiers.
Salem’s traditional Independence Day eve bonfires were epic, receiving considerable regional and national attention up until the 1950s, peaking with a portfolio of images taken by Life magazine photographer Yale Joel in 1949. I’ve written about these spectacles before, but there is more to say. I have a much better understanding of their chronology now, but I still can’t find evidence of the very first one, which early 20th-century references point to happening in 1814. I do not doubt this date, or even an earlier one, as bonfires go way back in Anglo-American history, through the Armada and Gunpowder Plot commemorations on one side of the Atlantic and Pope’s Day and Revolutionary War festivities on the other, but I wish I could find some confirmation. Actually, I don’t have much information about Salem’s bonfires prior to 1890, but after that year they clearly took off, escalating in size and notoriety over the next decades. There was a decade-long dry spell from 1910, which I assumed (very logically) was due to the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but actually predated that catastrophic event by several years. Things start heating up again in 1921, and in the 1920s there were bigger bonfires and crowds with every passing year. There are sporadic bonfires in the 1930s and 1940s, and then after the war the tradition continued into the 1960s (I think!) but it’s a bit hazy.
A.C. MacKintire cabinet card, c. 1906: these bonfires were BIG.
So here’s a bit more national, regional, and local context for Salem’s Independence Day bonfires, gleaned from a variety of sources, including a local facebook group focused on Salem’s history. Unfortunately no member is old enough to remember the pre-1930 glory days, but the earlier history is surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) well-documented.
1. It’sallaboutthe1890s. I’ve noticed this about other aspects of Salem’s history, particularly anything related to tourism: everything intensifies in the 1890s. There are random brief references to Salem’s bonfires before 1890, but in that year the Boston Daily Globe ran a long story under the headline “Old Salem Ablaze. Bonfires on Gallows Hill Lighted the Home of the Witches” which described a frenzied celebration in the streets of Salem on July 3: from sunset until midnight the principle streets were crowded with men, women, boys and girls, who passed the time in firing crackers, throwing torpedoes and blowing horns. In many ways it was the most noisy demonstration ever made in Salem. At midnight the immense crowd assembled in the vicinity of the highlands to watch the bonfires. On Gallows Hill a pile consisting of over 1000 barrels and boxes, to say nothing of old straw beds and witch hazel crammed into the intersections of the stack was set on fire, making a very handsome sight. The pile was 50 feet high and the flames towered as many feet higher. From 11-1 there was a concert on the hill by the Salem Brass Band. The Broad Street Social Club also had its annual jubilee on the Lookout and its adjacent pasture in the at the head of Broad Street (now the site of Salem Hospital). The 8th Regiment Band gave a concert from 8 to 12:00, interspersed with a exhibition of dissolving views, thrown upon an immense screen (what in the world was this????). At midnight upwards of 1000 barrels were set on fire, making a mountain of flame, which could be seen for miles.
2. Battle of the Bonfires: as the Philadelphia Record article above illustrates, there was a fierce competition in Salem over bonfire blazes, between the Gallows Hill Association which built their pyre on Gallows Hill and the Broad Street Club, which claimed Lookout Hill: this competition led to bigger and bigger bonfires with each passing year. In addition to this internal Salem competition, there was also competition between Salem and other Boston-area cities and towns, particularly in the first decade of the twentieth century. Salem clearly won the Boston battle, and the Gallows Hill guys (succeeded by the Ward Four Social Club and the Ancient Order of Hibernians) took the Salem prize.
3. Independence Day was the “most dangerous day of the year”. I’m quoting from an 1865 editorial and a 1935 Department of Agriculture pamphlet, both referencing the death, maiming and disablement associated with the festivities of July 4. During that long period there were repeated attempts by federal and state officials to cut down on the fiery July 4th celebrations, to no avail. On several occasions violence broke out in Salem, most notably in 1909, when a shooting occurred at the Lookout bonfire. Note the description of the scene in the Boston Daily Globe article from the next day: upwards of 75,000 persons witnessed the burning of the stack of railroad sleepers and barrels. Hundreds of boys and men were firing guns and revolvers. There’s a sense that things were getting a bit out of control, which may explain why the bonfires ceased for about a decade at this point.
4. Logistics. I’m amazed that things didn’t get even more out of control, given the composition of the bonfires: barrels of course, which were provided by local businesses, including tanneries, so supposedly they had remnants of combustible materials. Casks, old straw beds, hogsheads, railroad ties and sleepers, wired together and lit afire by torches before 1905, and then: ELECTRICITY. Salem made big news in 1905: never before in the history of this country was a bonfire started by wireless electricity claimed the Boston Daily Globe, thanks to 18-year-old John J. Brophy, pictured below. Even though the days of the Lookout bonfires were numbered at this point, this was a great victory for the Broad Street Club. One of the few acknowledgements of any potential danger in producing these spectacles concerns ignition: twenty years later there will be a brief attempt to ignite by “radio”.
5. 1920s revival. After a break during the nineteen-teens, during which the Great Salem Fire devastated the city and the new Salem Hospital was built on Lookout Hill, the Gallows Hill bonfires resumed under the auspices of the Ward Four Social Club and Ancient Order of Hibernians. The 1922 bonfire was ignited just after midnight ‘the night before’ by the old-fashioned torch method, and not by electricity as one or two of the former fires were started. There is a very conspicuous emphasis on “tradition” and “revival” in all of the coverage of these 1920s bonfires, and this is when you see references to the first bonfire: the organizers of the 1928 bonfire referred to it as the “114th Bonfire”. There was a tremendous response: with crowds reported at 80,000 for Salem’s tercentenary year and nearly as many in 1927. There are a few regional competitors in this decade, but Salem’s bonfire was repeatedly claimed to be “New England’s Biggest”.
6. Decline and dispersal. From 1931 to 1951, the Gallows Hill bonfires ebbed and flowed and ebbed again. The Boston Globe coverage of July Fourth festivities in the region shows what happened at the beginning of the era very clearly. In 1931, there was another “huge Salem bonfire stack”, so momentous that it required round-the-clock guards before the big night, while in 1932, both Boston and Salem abandoned their “bonfires of yore” at the onset of the Depression: for the first time in many years, there will be no mammoth stack in Salem. Several places have taken the money to buy railroad ties and cut them into stove lengths to give to the needy when the cold weather arrives. This strikes me as a pretty straightforward illustration of just one little consequence of the decade’s economic crisis! The bonfires resumed from 1937 to 1940, but they were much smaller and Salem was just briefly mentioned along with other communities in a Fourth of July roundup by the local papers. After World War II, everyone wanted to build a big celebratory bonfire, and Salem’s attracted a crowd of 60,000 in 1946, but in the next year (gasp)neighboring Danvers had a bigger stack and a bigger crowd. The Life photographs look a bit memorialistic in this context, but Salem natives tell me that the bonfires continued into the 1950s and early 1960s. What is clear from personal reminiscences is that Gallows Hill was no longer alone from this point on: there were smaller bonfires built in other parts of town: Collins Cove, Dead Horse Beach in the Willows, along the river in North Salem. So the bonfires (and the competition?) continued as an expression of neighborhood and community spirit, tapped down but still very traditional.
7. Appendix: is there an (unfortunate) connection between Salem’s famous bonfires and that OTHER big Salem event, resulting in the common misconception—still very much alive today—that the accused witches of 1692 were burned on Gallows Hill? I can’t tell you how many national headlines I read like the one below!
For this year’s July Fourth commemoration, I have gathered some Salem structures built in the 1770s so we can see some semblance of the city during that revolutionary decade. Salem has quite a few extant colonial structures, but not as many as you would imagine: it has long been a city, and also a relatively prosperous place, and economic development is a major impediment to historic preservation. I try to qualify every statement that I make about Salem’s history with the caveat I am not an American historian, but my constant consideration of the city’s built landscape has convinced me that the narrative that Salem entered a prolonged period of economic decline following the War of 1812 is mythology: many, many structures were built after 1820, after 1850, after 1870. Salem is more of a later nineteenth-century city than a Federal one, though its Federal architecture remains conspicuous. As for its colonial architecture, it seems to me that there are more structures from the mid-eighteenth century rather than the later part of the century, though there was definitely a mini-boom in the 1790s. Colonial houses are found on Salem’s side streets rather than its main thoroughfares, though Essex Street, Salem’s original “highway”, features several: it is definitely the most historically diverse street in the city. There are many colonial houses in the streets around Derby Street, a neighborhood that does not have the status or the protection of an historic district, consequently debacles like this can and will happen. I found quite a few houses from the decade of the 1770s thought nothing that was built in 1773 or 1778, and no structure survives from that very busy year of 1776 either, though there was definitely one big construction project that year: Fort Lee.
Salem celebrates the Fourth of July in a big way, with a Horribles parade at Salem Willows in the morning and fireworks accompanied by an orchestra at Derby Wharf in the evening. The Fourth is not perhaps as big an extravaganza as it used to be a while ago when a huge bonfire of barrels ruled the day (or night) in our city, but it is still big. I walked around and saw everyone putting out their colors today, and past the rather sad-looking Friendship which is missing its masts and getting hauled out for repairs the day after the holiday. The money shot of Fourth of July photography is the fireworks against the rigging and sails of the Friendship, so this year Salem photographers are going to have to be very creative! I put my own bunting on the house and stocked the refrigerator: my only regret is that I failed to make the famous Fourth of July punch featured on Chestnut Days past and in the 1947 Hamilton Hall Cookbook: apparently it takes two months to “ripen” so two days will simply not do.
Festooned for the Fourth on Chestnut, Essex, Carlton, Williams and Winter Streets in Salem, the mastless Friendship, and the 1947 recipe for Fourth of July punch–too late for this year but keep in mind for next.
Even though it’s not an era in which I have any academic expertise, I admire the Gilded/Edwardian era from afar: nearly every contemporary commercial image seems to convey a society that is simultaneously dynamic and elegant. Of course we never see who did all that ironing! The other day I was looking through some examples of a new ephemeral category for me, menus, when I spotted a rather dashing young lady outfitted for the Fourth of July. This particular Gibson Girl graces the cover of a menu for a holiday dinner held in 1900 at the Hotel Magnolia up in Gloucester, a New England coastal “clapboard castle” now sadly gone. I wanted to see some more examples of July Fourth fashions from the era, so I rounded up the usual sources and found a fashionable couple and a girl from a century ago who would look perfectly fine today–especially in her gladiator sandals, very on trend this summer.
1900 Menu, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Edward Penfield cover for Collier’s Magazine, July 1913, and “Follow the Flag” cover for Puck Magazine, July 1914, both Library of Congress.
I think I’ll extend my era, backwards and forwards, to encompass more nationalistic looks. The two dresses below, separated by more than a century and featured together in the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s 2009 “Fashion & Politics” exhibition, are certainly patriotic, and perhaps a bit over the top. If you don’t want to wrap yourself in the flag, an accessory in red, white, and blue will do– a trend that was all the rage during World War Two.
1889 costume and 2009 dress by Catherine Malandrino, Collection of the Museum at FIT, New York; LaValle Shoes, 1940, Collection of the Museum at FIT; 48-star Clutch, c. 1940-58, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.