A century ago, the 4th of July was a time to merge old and new traditions

Members of the Greek contingent in the parade on July 4, 1915. (Photo: Digital Commonwealth)

At the start of the 20th century, the Fourth of July provided concerts, lectures, parades and sporting events for the people of Cambridge and many towns across the country. Whether celebrating in their own neighborhood with luncheons hosted by local civic or religious groups, playing or watching a baseball game or track race, or watching the fireworks from the shores of the Charles, the Cantabrians had many options to mark the nation’s birthday. But in the decade between 1910 and 1920, events around the world and across the country made their way into the city’s Independence Day celebrations, demonstrating how the sense of the holiday had grown and exchange. The festival is still evolving a century later.

In its July 2, 1910 issue, the Cambridge Chronicle noted that “Cambridge occupies a unique position among the great cities of our country. It is the only city where it is possible to celebrate the 135th anniversary of the assumption of command of the continental troops by Washington in the very place where this great event occurred”, ie Cambridge Common. The author went on to salute “this decision made 135 years ago, which meant freedom and freedom, not only for the men of this time, but for the races of all nations who come to our shores at this time”. The demographic profile of newcomers was changing at the turn of the 20th century, not just in Cambridge but across the United States. Immigrants from northern and western Europe no longer constituted the majority of new arrivals; those from southern and eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia were growing in number, leading some to fear that the national character was changing – and not for the better.

Public celebrations such as the 4th of July provided an important opportunity for immigrant communities to join their local compatriots in declaring their loyalty to their new homeland while celebrating the cultures from which they came. As part of Cambridge’s 1910 Independence Day Parade, various ethnic groups organized and participated in the city’s grand parade, marching on foot or on horseback, or riding on floats that represented their national history and culture . This “Pageant of Nations” featured immigrants from Canada, Germany, China, Poland, Portugal, Armenia and Lithuania; over the next decade, these and other nationalities participated in the city’s 4th of July parades, celebrating their homelands and emphasizing their patriotism as assimilated Americans.

This embrace of Independence Day celebrations took on added significance late in the decade, when the United States entered World War I. In June 1918, the Chronicle described preparations for the upcoming holiday, noting that “At the behest of President Wilson, states and cities throughout our country will hold their Fourth of July celebration so that citizens of foreign birth may have opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to this country. A short time ago, Mayor Quinn received a telegram asking Cambridge to join in such a celebration. The newspaper notes that representatives of the Armenian, French-Canadian, Greek, Italian, Lithuanian, Portuguese, Polish, Latvian and Swedish communities gathered at City Hall to plan the roles of their respective nationalities in the celebration, believing that the total attendance is said to be between 5,000 and 7,000 and proclaiming that ‘the celebration will be one of the greatest displays of the loyalty of our foreign-born citizens ever seen in Cambridge’.

The role of the United States in the war also led to the adoption of the 4th of July in other countries, especially our allies, Great Britain and France. In 1918, King George V publicly marked the anniversary of United States independence as a sign of appreciation for United States aid to the war effort. And that same year, Acting Governor of Massachusetts Calvin Coolidge issued a proclamation calling on cities and towns across the Commonwealth to fly the French flag to celebrate July 14, a date that “holds a similar position in the minds of the people”. of France that our Fourth of July makes of us. The following year, the Cambridge Sentinel reiterated what it considered to be the unique and enduring ties between the United States and France, stating that “however observed in the years to come, the 4 July will likely have much of France now that the bonds between nations formed during the Revolution have been strengthened and cemented again. Just as the French had come to the aid of the fledgling United States during its Revolutionary War, the United States had provided crucial aid to France and its allies in the war against Germany.

Although the ways in which the Cantabrians have commemorated the 4th of July have changed over the last two and a half centuries, taking on the meaning and context of contemporary local, national and international events, the holiday has remained one on which a wide variety of residents of Cambridge many ethnicities were able to combine pride in their national origins with expressions of patriotism towards their new homeland. As our city’s demographic diversity continues to grow, Independence Day will undoubtedly continue to showcase this blend of cultural traditions. How do you celebrate the 4th of July in Cambridge? Let us know how your community honors its cultural roots while embracing the traditions of the United States.

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Beth Folsom is Program Manager for History Cambridge.

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