A Safe and Sane 4th of July

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Today is Independence Day in America, also known as the 4th of July. Americans have always been enthusiastic about their freedom, especially when you consider it’s an integral part of the American philosophy of life. The Gilded Age and Progressive Era were no exception. America was coming into its own during the late 19th/early 20th centuries in commerce, politics, and society. The Spanish-American War of 1898 brought America into the world stage for the first time. Things were pretty good.

Photo Credit: Drawing of a skeleton dressed up for the 4th of July celebrations, 1899, lithograph, created by L. Crusius, Welcome Collection: Look and Learn/CC BY 4.0

But Americans carried their enthusiasm a little too far. We know the staples of 21st century 4th of July celebrations (before COVID, that is). It’s a social holiday with family BBQs and fireworks to boot. The latter is especially synonymous with Independence Day for most Americans. I’ll never forget the first fireworks display I saw when I was living in San Francisco in 1995. My brother took me to Crissy Field to see the fireworks over the bay. It was an impactful show of country spirit and dedication.

It’s hard to believe in the Progressive Era, some politicians were pushing for a “quiet” 4th of July, encouraging Americans to stay home instead of going out into the street and celebrating with fireworks. But they had good reason. The enthusiasm for the 4th had by that time gotten out of hand. Children were going around shooting off toy guns to join in the fun and sometimes their aim wasn’t so careful. Fireworks, as you might imagine, weren’t exactly sophisticated in those days so safety wasn’t a priority. In addition, there were canons, firecrackers, and other explosives set off that caused many injuries and even death. And we’re talking serious statics here. In 1903 (the year my Adele Gossling Mysteries opens), more than 400 people died and 4,000 were injured during the nation’s 4th of July celebrations. Many of these came from tetanus as a result of shrapnel wounds from dangerous explosives or careless toy guns.

These well-wishers of what was dubbed the Safe and Sane movement weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. We know many Americans made fun of the reform movements taking place in the early 20th century and they resented these politicians who wanted to take away their fun on Independence Day. Many cities began to implement ordinances to try and curtail these dangerous celebrations. In San Francisco (where part of my series takes place) women’s clubs worked to get toy guns out of the hands of kids younger than seventeen.

This movement encouraged other cities to implement more community-related events around the Fourth (like the yearly firework display at Crissy Field in San Francisco that I saw in the 1990s). Other events besides fireworks were sports, games, and picnics. These events gave Americans a chance to celebrate the holiday in a social environment that was, well, safe and sane!

Want to see more Progressive Era politics in action? Read the Adele Gossling Mysteries!  Book 1 is now available for purchase. Book 2 will be out at the end of this month but you can get it now on preorder at a special price.

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A Gilded Age New Year

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Photo Credit: Fanciful sketch of a New Year’s Eve celebration, Marguerite Martyn, 1914, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 January 1914, Editorial Section: BeenAroundAWhile/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Since this is the holiday season, I’ve been reflecting on the holidays in history, particularly in the 19th century. I wrote about Thanksgiving and Christmas in the Gilded Age. No holiday discussion could be complete without New Year’s.

New Year’s in the 19th century was then, as it is today, about seeing off the old year and bringing in the new. In the earlier part of the century, celebrations were rather modest. It was not uncommon to have a “watch night” on New Year’s Eve where people (especially in rural areas) would watch and wait for the clock to strike midnight so they could leave their old sins behind and begin the new year fresh to commit new ones.

Gilded Agers turned New Year’s into a real party holiday for the same reasons they turned Thanksgiving into a dining extravaganza: They wanted to show off. So they threw lavish parties and “invitation only” balls that included eight-course dinners and plenty of champagne even before the clock struck midnight. There are anecdotes about these Gilded Age party-goers, most of them wealthy, who were indeed determined to leave their sins behind them in the old year. It was not uncommon for them to go from house party to house party, making complete fools of themselves, and getting their names in the society columns the next morning. What a way to start the new year!

There were other traditions that are staples of New Year’s which came in the 19th century. One of them is the song “Auld Lang Syne,” a sentimental farewell to old friends and experiences. The song was actually an 18th century ballad composed by Scottish poet Robert Burns, and the tradition of singing it at midnight on New Year’s Day began in the mid-19th century, though it wasn’t until later in the 1920s that it became a permanent staple of our New Year’s tradition.

And the famous New Year’s Eve ball, that gigantic globe of light that drops at midnight every year in Times Square? That originated on New Year’s Day in 1905. The original ball was seven hundred pounds of iron and wood with a hundred light bulbs. The ball has been updated several times, the last in 2008, so it now weighs over twelve hundred pounds. Rather than lowered by hand with ropes as the original ball was, it now has a laser atomic clock located in Colorado.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say we still do, in a way, have our “watch night” where we wait impatiently for midnight to strike so we can let go of the old year’s sins and enter the new fresh. In fact, the reason New Year’s Day is on January 1st has to do with just that idea. Julius Cesar was the one who implemented the new calendar year to begin on that day, naming the first month of each new year January after Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings. Janus has two faces — one face facing front and the another face in the back of his head. Why? So that he can look back to the past and look forward to the present and future. For anyone who has read my fiction, this is exactly what my characters do. So, in essence, if I had to chose a holiday that belonged to the Waxwood Series, it would be New Year’s.

Want to read about how Vivian Alderdice looks back into the past to find her future? Start reading the Waxwood Series for only 99¢! Get all the information here

Is the life of a Gilded Age debutante all parties and flirtations? Read “The Rose Debutante” to find out! It’s FREE! Plus, you’ll get to know about life in the past and about the resilient women the history books forgot. And how about fun historical facts, great deals on historical fiction books, and a cool monthly freebie thrown in just because? Here’s where you can sign up.

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