Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Antiques & Horribles" on the Fourth of July

Firehouse on Washington Street, 1891
Photo credit: Brookline Historical Society
This photo shows the old firehouse on Washington Street, at the corner of High Street, in 1891. Flanked by two wooden commercial buildings, the firehouse (replaced by the current building in 1908) is decked out for the Fourth of July.

But on closer examination, something seems odd.

Closeup of firehouse


The bunting looks twisted and sloppily hung. The flag is facing the wrong direction. It's also bunched up on the lower left — not exactly proper flag decorum — and the white stripes look...well...not so white. And there's a stuffed figure of a fireman on the top, in front of the tower. (Compare it to this photo of the same firehouse decorated a decade or so later.)

And yet, according to an account in the Boston Post, "The building occupied by the Hose 1 and Engine 1 companies was the most tastefully decorated in the town, and was awarded the prize of $10 as such."

What's going on here?

An Old Tradition
The answer may lie in an old New England tradition: the Antiques & Horribles parade on the Fourth of July. The Antiques & Horribles — sometimes shortened to the "Horribles Parade" — was an annual event in Brookline and many other towns in the second half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. It's still celebrated in several towns today.

Local residents would dress up as "antiques" — figures from the past — or "horribles" — characters in strange and often grotesque or macabre guise. The horribles, according to Yankee Magazine, "used elaborate costumes, masks, blackface, cross-dressing, and other disguise to illustrate gender and class reversal. Their satire and broad parody were often aimed at authority, women, and foreigners."

The tradition probably began in the 1840s — the earliest known example is in Lowell in 1851 — as a parody of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts.

The "Ancients & Honorables," as they are called, are "the oldest chartered military organization in the Western hemisphere." Formed in 1638 "to train young gentleman officers for service in the various militias of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," the company has taken part in Independence Day celebrations since the earliest days of the nation.

Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company on parade in Boston, 1900


By the middle of the 19th century, the Ancients and Honorables, by then a largely symbolic organization, were ripe for parody. Here's how UCLA linguist William Matthews (in the journal American Speech, October 1940) described the rise of the "Horribles" as a reaction to the Ancients and Honorables:

As it became a body of eminent citizens who had the taste for military organization, of course practically every member was an officer of this of that other regiment; and the members personally were not snappy young cadets with reputations to make and physiques that needed no making, but solid burghers who had gone beyond their youth in becoming eminent by activities that did not involve keeping the body in fighting condition.

The result was that on such occasions of state as called for a parade of the... "Ancients and Honorables"...the variegated display of diverse uniforms on unathletic figures looked comic to a visitor who had not been brought up to reverence the Company's high status.

So a time came when it was customary in country villages to burlesque it by a Fourth-of-July parade of..."Antiques and Horribles"...Nowadays, "Antique" is omitted from the title; but it is still customary that part of the costumes try to look as antiquated as possible while others try to look as frowzy as possible.

According to Yankee Magazine, "the disorderly and drunken training days that characterized the last years of compulsory militia service" may also have had something to do with the rise of the Antiques & Horribles.

Antiques & Horribles in Brookline and Beyond
Brookline's 1891 Independence Day celebration, like those of other years, began at 7 am with an Antiques & Horribles parade.  It started at the corner of Washington and Cypress Streets, marched down Washington through Brookline Village to the firehouse, and then west on Boylston back to Cypress and Cypress Field.

The Post reported that the parade "was not up to the standard of those of former years" though Brookline's own paper, the Chronicle, said it was "exceptionally good."

Boston Post article on 1891 parade
Boston Post, July 6, 1891

Although no pictures of that year's parade have come to light, it seems likely that the odd decoration of the firehouse was done in the spirit of the Antiques & Horribles. Perhaps it was changed to a more respectable display after the morning parade. Or maybe the report of it being "tastefully decorated" was tongue-in-cheek.

The Antiques & Horribles photo below from Brookline in the late 1890s or early 1900s gives a sense of the comedic turn these parades often took. It shows a float whimsically promoting flying machine races on Corey Hill, the "Brookline Liquid Air Railway", and other municipal "advancements" such as car rides 50 years in the future from the "City of Brookline" to "Boston Village."

Less whimsical to modern eyes are several characters in blackface, all too common in this era. Prizes awarded in 1891, in fact (in addition to the firehouse), included characters dressed as "Negro minstrels" and a "colored boy on a donkey." 

https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:6t053v39f
Photo credit: Brookline Public Library
Click on the image for a larger, zoomable view at Digital Commonwealth
A second photo, from Brookline's 1889 Fourth of July celebration, shows several oddly-dressed characters (including a honeymooning couple with a mustache peeking out from behind the "bride's" veil) amid baseball players and soldiers in antique uniforms. (See the full zoomable photo at Digital Commonwealth)

Characters on Fourth of July 1889
Photo credit: Brookline Public Library

Two more examples, from other Massachusetts towns, give a better sense of the "horribles" costumes typical of these parades.

Antiques & Horribles, New Bedford
Figures at an Antiques & Horribles parade, New Bedford, MA
Photo credit: New Bedford Free Public Library
Antiques & Horribles, Andover
"Horribles" on a float, Andover, MA
Photo credit: Andover Historical Society

Horribles Parades Today
The tradition of Fourth of July Antiques & Horribles parades spread beyond New England. There were versions in New York City's Harlem, in California, Texas, Arizona, Hawaii, and elsewhere. The Ancients and Honorables themselves held a 7 am Antiques & Horribles parade on July 4, 1896 on board the steamship Servia as they marked Independence Day on their way to visit England.

The parades had largely died out by the middle of the 20th century, although some towns have continued or revived them. Contemporary examples, usually minus the satire of earlier days, include parades in Marblehead, Gloucester, Beverly Farms, Winthrop, Danvers, and New Silver Beach (North Falmouth), all in Massachusetts, and Glocester in Rhode Island.

The term "parade of horribles" has also taken on a metaphorical sense in the legal arena, reaching all the way to the United States Supreme Court, as recounted in a column by former Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer.


NOTE: The commercial buildings on either side of the firehouse in the 1891 photo have their own stories to tell. More about those in a later blog post