Celebrating Washington’s Birthday
This post is the third in a three-part series about holidays held in the Village, a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2014 Intro to Public History course. In conjunction with the public program held on Wednesday, December 17th, each group was also tasked with sharing their discoveries with us on Off the Grid.
The following post was written by Sam Bodnar and Horst Rosenberg.
George Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1732, was once a grand holiday that was nationally celebrated every year before it was absorbed into what is now President’s Day. Because of Washington’s close ties to New York, the parades and celebrations were prominent in the Greenwich Village area. Between the years of 1870-1920, the way in which Washington’s Birthday was celebrated in Greenwich Village changed drastically. While the celebrations focused on Americanism and Patriotism, Greenwich Village was experiencing an influx of immigrants, and this had a deep impact on the idea of what it meant to be “American.”
In the 1870’s Greenwich Village was known as being the “American ward.” It was called this because of its prominent native white Protestant community of higher economic status; this ideal American was modeled after Washington himself. The parades celebrating Washington’s Birthday were often lead by the American Protestant Association or Union military organizations. The American Protestant Association was in conflict with the growing Irish Catholic immigrant population that was beginning to flourish in Greenwich Village. During these years Cooper Union would give speeches on “Americanism;” while different each year, they would focus on the immigrant threats to New York and the nativists.
Nearing the mid 1880’s Cooper Union changed their tune with the growing immigrant population and delivered a speech welcoming immigrants with open arms on the condition that they assimilated to the “American way.” This quickly changed how Washington’s Birthday was celebrated and Greenwich Village soon saw a drop-off in parades and local public gatherings in honor of our Founding Father. The turn of the century also saw a shift from extravagant military parades to parades lead by Volunteer Firefighters. These parades would start in Greenwich Village and often end in Brooklyn. While the firefighters, largely made up of Irish and Italian immigrants, were marching to honor Washington on his birthday, those in attendance were honoring these firefighters as ideal Americans.
By the time of the First World War, Washington’s Birthday celebrations looked vastly different than their historical forebears. The holiday had slipped from the realm of solemn civic observance into the category of leisure holiday. Newspaper accounts of the day highlight outings in parks on fair weather days and quiet celebrations at home as the standard acknowledgements of the day. As Washington Square lost its luster at the end of the 19th century, one was as likely to find an anti-war rally as a wreath laying to mark the occasion at the Washington Arch. When war did break out, the quiet tenor of these earlier celebrations was interrupted and full-scale parades once more became the order of the day. The 1918 parade is particularly notable as it was used as an informal sendoff for 10,000 men of the Metropolitan Division before their departure for the fields of France. Of particular note is the large number of African Americans who marched in segregated units in the parade who received rapturous applause and cheers from the reviewing stand.
These outpourings of patriotic fervor stand in stark contrast to the rioting which marked Washington’s Birthday just two years before when a group of women activists used the occasion to stage a rally in favor of reductions in the price of food. The 1916 rally quickly degenerated into a riot and the bedlam which ensued left several women and children injured. After the flight of most of Washington Square’s wealthiest residents in the late 19th century, celebrations of Washington’s birthday fled with them. It was not until moments of national crisis that the parades and banners were brought to their former fervor. While the generation of the 1870’s sought to use the holiday to define American life as an exclusive club with a high bar of entry, later generations would focus less on Washington himself in exchange for an increasingly inclusive vision of the United States.