How Portsmouth Partied in 1923
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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The enormous 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of Portsmouth is now just 10 years away. It could be the biggest economic boom in city history. Think of tons of tourists spending bags of money throughout the year. Or, we could wait until the last minute, not build that parking garage, and squander the whole thing. (Continued below)
That's what almost happened back in 1998 when the 375th celebration barely got off the ground in time. There was a bigger public response at the 350th, but Virginia Tanner set the bar high with her "Pageant of Portsmouth" in 1923.
Tanner's extravaganza pulled the community together in what was one of the last great American pageants. Back then, at the finale of the Colonial Revival, Portsmouth citizens still saw themselves as linked to a chain of events dating back to the day the founding fishing family stepped out of their boat at the entrance to Little Harbor in 1623. It was a romantic and not terribly accurate connection, but it promoted civic pride and raised a lot of money.
Coming Home Again
New Hampshire barely gave two hoots about its founding until Daniel Webster, the great orator, gave a bicentennial speech at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1820. "Wait a second!" someone in the New Hampshire seacoast apparently said. "We're only three years younger than those Pilgrims. Why should they get all the credit?"
This set off a major squabble between Portsmouth and Dover, both towns claiming to have been settled in 1623. (I'll try to settle that feud in my next column.) Portsmouth held its own celebration starring Daniel Webster in 1823. If was no mardi gras. The city's most prominent men -- no women were included -- marched reverently from the South End to the North Church. They read long poems, gave speeches, sang songs, and topped it all off with a big fish dinner.
That evening there was a fancy dance in a Market Square ballroom. Women were invited. Half of the 400 personalities who attended signed their names on a giant sheet of paper that still can be seen on the stairway of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Dull as it may seem today, the 1823 event was a booster shot for Portsmouth. The city had lost its Revolutionary Era luster and was in economic freefall. Young people were leaving the crumbling old seaport for big new cities and the western frontier. The 1823 celebration also created the NH Historical Society in Concord and began a series of profitable homecoming festivals that drew visitors to the "Old Town by the Sea." Heritage tourism was born. By 1899 towns across the state were celebrating a now-extinct holiday known as Old Home Day.
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