The History of Parades


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“Everyone loves a Parade” or at least that is what the board of the “Church Street Marketplace Foundation” was thinking when they commissioned the Québécois artist Pierre Hardy to paint a mural in downtown Burlington, Vermont (VT).

North American society has a long tradition of celebrating their own history by visually reenacting it in the public arena; this has allowed for constant reconstruction and reevaluation of the past and its culture (Fabre, 1995). Ingrained in political, military and religious contexts, these public manifestations (e.g., national celebrations, festivals, parades or public mourning rituals) were initially rather rudimentary in nature, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, and reaching their maturity in the nineteenth century. The parades’ role was to establish political power, accent mainstream traditions, and maintain historical and cultural heritage. Historian Mary Ryan explained this phenomenon in 1989 when she stated that North Americans developed a distinctive model of public performance: one where diverse representatives of the urban population, mainly men, were organized in separate walking units that paraded through the public way—the American parade was born. By marching under a specific rank along a planned route, the parader embodied the group’s identities and alliances in the eyes of the mass spectator. This seemingly subtle display was complete with ostentatious decoration, costumes, and classically patriotic symbols which gave parades their airs of communal festivity and jubilee. Indeed, being part of the parade meant being part of the community at large for one did not simply spontaneously walk on: the planning was left to an organizational committee tasked with grouping community members in marching units that represented specific social identities. Although women did not enter into the parade’s visible dynamics until later in the nineteenth century, almost everyone who applied to the organizational committee was granted participation; rare exceptions were made on the basis of gender and race. What makes parades a particularly interesting socio-cultural case study are the microcosms of connections they encompass as well as their historical progression: the ranking system displayed in the procession line and the relationships between the participants, who was at the beginning or the end, and who was allowed in or left outside the lines. In other words: the negotiation of class, ethnicity, and gender, inside the social system, in a sea of urban diversity.

The first significant procession to be documented in the United States was the one that took place in Philadelphia the day the Constitution was Ratified on June 21 1788: it did not display the typical ‘street line’ ceremonial organization of a parade and ended, as it was the custom at the time, with all the participants and the surrounding public gathering together, like neighbors, to feast around a communal larder.

Over the following decades, this convivial aspect of early parade-gatherings was lost in favor of the, far less intimate, processional-style we are accustomed to today. It was between 1825 and 1850 that the parade emerged as such; becoming the norm of the street ceremonial in American public life. During the 1880s, the demographic landscape radically changed through great migration waves in cities like San Francisco Bay, New Orleans, and New York, the urban space had to quickly albeit unwillingly transform by absorbing and accommodating new racial minorities. This incorporation brought about change in the way public space was used and performed in as ethnic groups progressively started to enter in the parade arena and lobby to be recognized as an independent social entity. After many years of push-and-pull, Irish communities were the first to break through the barrier into the civic stage and open the way for distinctively ethnic parades. A new tradition was discovered: one in which parades became a public vehicle of identity proclamation and validation for any group with enough organizational abilities and overall unity.