A Victorian Fourth of July was not complete without a parade, picnic, fireworks, and perhaps even a historical pageant. The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 gave the holiday an extra boost.
The obvious reason for the Centennial Exhibition was the celebration of 100 years of nationhood. But, ironically, the exhibits at the Exhibition celebrated the future more vigorously than the past. New inventions, achievements, discoveries and ideas were showcased that gave visitors pride in their own society. Along with all the rest of its displays, the Centennial Exhibition did much to popularize or introduce foods that we take for granted. More efficient methods of preserving and importing fresh fruits brought bananas (individually wrapped in tinfoil and costing 10 cents) to Americans’ diets for the first time. Hot popcorn made its American debut at the Exhibition. Numerous ice cream soda fountains brought this frosty delight into the Victorian vocabulary.
Victorians had faith in the technology that was bringing them easier, more efficient ways to travel, do housework, do office work and enjoy life. Close to 10 million people visited the Exhibition during its seven-month duration; perhaps the Physicks were among them. The Fourth of July holiday was the perfect excuse for the Victorians to celebrate not only their country’s past, but its future, as well. The Fourth was also the apex of the picnic season. An English visitor noted in 1870 that on the Fourth, “picnics are going off in every direction—quiet little church picnics, Sunday school picnics, working people’s picnics, picnics of a hundred societies and associations.”
On July 5, 1882, the Cape May Wave described the previous day’s activities:
The Fourth in the City
The hotels and cottages about town made a general display of bunting. Washington Street was gay during the early part of the day by the presence of many promenaders. The finest decorations on the thoroughfare were in the vicinity of the WAVE office. Here, the excellent taste of our friend Mr. C. H. Miller was manifest in the graceful festooning of flags and Japanese lanterns. Dr. Kennedy’s United States Pharmacy was also neatly set off with red, white and blue bunting. Young America fired off the usual amount of Chinese crackers, toy pistols and cannon, much to the annoyance of pedestrians.
Notice the mention of bunting on the buildings in town. Our holiday display of bunting and flags on the Physick House exterior is meant to be a reminder of this Victorian tradition, as if the Physicks were joining in the celebration. This practice of draping architecture with large-scale fabric decorations is one that isn’t widely revived today (except maybe in Cape May!)
Fireworks were a traditional part of the Fourth’s festivities, but the injuries they caused gave rise to the larger, organized, safer community displays that we enjoy today. The holiday became so associated with accidents caused by firecrackers that in the 1890s, President Grover Cleveland spoke out against them in numerous speeches. Many civic organizations worked to end individual use of fireworks and encourage community fireworks displays. In 1903, Springfield, Massachusetts became the first town to outlaw the sale of fireworks. Many other cities and states quickly followed, and by the early 20th century the sale of fireworks became illegal in most of the country.