Best of Independence Day: The Gilded Age Edition

Lindsey Howald Patton —  June 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

The Fourth didn’t become a federal holiday until 1941, but America has been celebrating it since the signatures went down on the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Looking back at a Gilded Age’s worth of Fourth of July celebrations in Chicago, here are some of best (and some of the worst) moments between the Civil and First World Wars.

Best Road Trip Destination

Philadelphia by Carriage (Eight Days’ Journey from Chicago, 1876)

The Philadelphia World's Fair, 1876

The Main Building at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, depicted in a Currier and Ives lithograph. Image courtesy University of Maryland Libraries.

During the summer of 1876, Philadelphia held a massive world’s fair—the first one on U.S. soil—to honor the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. About 20 percent of the U.S. population showed up at some point. In addition to all kinds of parades and celebrations on the Fourth of July, you could get your first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty’s torch-bearing right arm. (French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was still working on the rest.)

Best Food Fad

One Red Hot, Dragged Through the Garden, Please (1893)

Two girls eat America's favorite Independence Day food

Two girls eat America’s favorite Independence Day food, circa 1925.

There are enough origin tales to make it clear that hot dogs have no one true moment of invention. Even the purists who know Germany gave us the frankfurter or Vienna the wienerwurst can’t deny that even Homer mentions processed sausage in his Odyssey. But what is clear is that the fad officially took hold in Chicago in 1893 during the World’s Fair.

These red hots—a nickname earned by a reddish meat casing and the fact that they were served hot, unlike some other cured sausages—were introduced at the fair by an Austro-Hungarian pair, Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany. It’s the ultimate street food for a day strolling through the fair: pile it as you might with veggies and condiments—known as “dragging it through the garden,” or, more simply, ordering it Chicago-style—you need no plate.

Best Feel-Good Holiday News Story Wired from Abroad

France Celebrates the U.S.A Without Irony (1902)

An American flag over crowds in Paris
An American flag is waved over crowds in Paris. Photo by John Florea for Life, 1945.

Warm feelings were running high between our two countries in 1902. In spring of that year, two devastating volcanic eruptions on a French territory in the Caribbean resulted in the deaths of 30,000 people, and—not having forgotten how crucial the French armies were to the U.S. fight for independence more than 100 years earlier—the U.S. immediately sent money and troops to Martinique to aid the disaster relief effort. Individual Americans, meanwhile, pitched in by donating their own money.

Two months later, on the week of July 4, 1902, Paris draped itself in American flags. Apparently you could, standing in the Place de l’Opéra, count over 150 flags without even craning your neck.

Worst Place to Spend the Holiday

Cook County Hospital

Cook County Hospital, early 20th century

Inside Cook County Hospital in the early 20th century. Courtesy of John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County.

Tetanus—the painful disease also called lockjaw—was the cause of much trepidation in the weeks leading up to the Fourth of July and grief in the days following.

Fireworks, popular toy pistols, and something people called “giant crackers” caused wounds, even slight ones, which could easily result in a painful, often-deadly tetanus infections. Without routine immunizations and with, by the 1890s, only a nascent vaccine, tetanus was “the most virulent poison known,” according to a statement made by Chicago’s health department.

In the late 19th century and early years of the 20th, the city issued gruesome warnings intended to dampen the Fourth of July fun and save lives—particularly those of children, who were often affected. (In 1902 there were 12 deaths as a direct result of Fourth of July festivities; the victims ranged in age from 6 to 24 years old; almost all of these were from lockjaw).

Other common fatal risks during the Fourth’s festivities were heat stroke, death-by-shooting or explosives, and contaminated ice.

Best Campaign to Keep the Peace

Sane Fourth by the Tribune (1899)

Page from the July 4, 1910 Chicago Daily Tribune

A page from the Tribune on July 4, 1910. From Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922): 6. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988). Jul 04 1910.

Deaths and injuries caused by toy pistols, real pistols, metal caps, fires, firecrackers, exploding powders, those “giant crackers,” and more finally became such an issue that in 1899 the Tribune started a city-wide movement for “the safe and sane celebration of the Fourth of July.”

The newspaper referred to the holiday in savage terms: the Fourth was a “day of torment, of murder, of suicide and butchery.” It likened the holiday to the Spanish-American War.

Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but most of us these days ring in Independence Day with a charcoal grill, lawn games, and maybe a trip down to Navy Pier for fireworks. In the 19th century, people, especially youth, would toss explosives (which were entirely unregulated by manufacturers or dealers) onto the L tracks as a trolley approached, while others threw firecrackers into open car windows. They lit fire to wastepaper boxes on the street corners. They shot off pistols at one another. Annually on July 5, the Trib published the city’s festivities-related death count in an attempt to create awareness.

It took seven dogged years, but as a result of the Sane Fourth campaign and the Tribune’s numerous jabs at public officials, ordinances were finally passed to regulate fireworks and explosives in Chicago.


Image at top of “Colossal Hand and Torch” of the future Statue of Liberty at the Philadelphia International Exhibition, 1876, via the Library of Congress.
Lindsey Howald Patton

Lindsey Howald Patton

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