How Portsmouth Partied in 1923
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson


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.

Arch in the 1823 Portsmouth Bicentennial




90 Years Ago

The city anniversary celebrations reached their peak in 1923 when Portsmouth and Dover, still feuding over who came first, threw separate events on the same days in August, each featuring an incredible live history pageant. The pageantry craze in America was short-lived and peaked between 1910 and 1917.  It has been connected to the Progressive Era in politics and the great influx of immigration. Pageants were of way of boosting patriotism and teaching history in a fun carnival like atmosphere. They often focused on hyper local stories, mixed with music, dancing, poetry, and parades.

01 Virginia TannerAcross the river, Miss Dover marched through the streets in the flowing white robes of a Greek goddess, attended by women representing Beauty, National Pride, Strength, Fertility and a dozen other symbolic figures. The Dover Pageant opened, appropriately, with a tableau entitled The Dawn of Creation. The story advanced to the arrival of the Hilton Brothers at Dover Neck in 1623. The audience sighed at the Persecution of the Quaker Women, gasped at the bloody Cochecho Indian Massacre, cheered to the Ratification of the Constitution, and booed the villainous figures representing Famine, Fever, and Death who leered from the stage.

Portsmouth managed to one-up Dover by hiring Virginia Tanner, the renowned pageant designer, actress, dancer, and author from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Born in 1881, Tanner held a master's degree from Radcliffe College. Tanner was an advocate of "aesthetic dancing" over folk or classical performances. The highly dramatic style, popularized by actress Isadora Duncan, was more emotional, expressive, and tied to symbolism and personal interpretation. 

History on Parade

A hundred women sewed the costumes. A hundred sopranos sang in the massive chorus. Thousands attended the three-day Portsmouth pageant in an outdoor arena called the Pines, just off South Street. The event grossed a whopping $11,388, plus the sale of souvenir books. Tanner earned $2,000 and we can assume that the city of Portsmouth paid up. When another pageant town held back funds, Tanner sued them in court and won.

She cut no corners in a pageant that The Portsmouth Herald called "a Dazzling, Inspiring Spectacle." Wigs were shipped in from New York. Performers came from the National Ballet in Washington. Photos from the local newspaper show sleek muscular dancers in scanty Indian warrior costumes flinging colonial maidens aloft in agile movements. There was a real horse-drawn stagecoach, marching farm animals, soldiers in Revolutionary War uniforms firing cannons, and a "Negro" chorus.

Tanners views, for the time, were diverse and inclusive. A parade of representatives from the city's Polish, Irish, Italian, Greek, and Chinese families took part. Children from every local school walked proudly by. Then came veterans of the Great War, the Spanish-American War, and the last survivors of the Civil War. It was pomp of the highest circumstance.

According to Tanner's souvenir script, the Pageant of Portsmouth opened with women in flapper hairstyles wearing diaphanous wood nymph-style outfits.. A woman draped to symbolize "Portsmouth" greeted the assembled audience. She was attended by women representing Rye, Greenland, New Castle, Newington, Kittery and the Isles of Shoals. (No one represented Dover in the Portsmouth celebration.)

The field lights on the outdoor stage came up and the pageant chorus sang. The audience heard distant drums and saw Indians dancing in the firelight. Martin Pring, the region's first European explorer, and the famous Captain John Smith sailed by on ship-shaped floats. David and Amias Thompson, the founding family of New Hampshire, greeted the cheering crowd. There was a ritualistic Indian massacre and the signing of a treaty. Elderly British Governor Benning Wentworth shocked the town once again by marrying his young housekeeper. Paul Revere rode into view on a powerful steed. Local citizens re-enacted the 1774 attack on Fort William and Mary. John Paul Jones sailed off in the Ranger to attack England, his iconic first flag fluttering. President George Washington stopped by for a visit with Gov. John Langdon. The "colored chorus" sand spiritual songs.



1923 Indian Dancer

Ransacking dusty shelves

 A lot can happen in 100 years. While the original Portsmouth anniversary in 1823 was a male-only event, Tanner's pageant lead off with all-female figures representing the seacoast region. Her copyrighted script included equivalent roles for women, children, ethnic residents, artists, musicians, and performers. It was, 90 years ago, a prediction of Portsmouth today.

Her job, Tanner wrote in the introduction to the Pageant of Portsmouth souvenir booklet was not to create new information, but "to ransack the dusty shelves" of history. Tanner says she had to pick events that could be viewed and appreciated at night, under lights, without dialogue, and still appeal to a huge crowd. It was a spectacle, she said, reanimated from "the dead past."

During its heyday, pageantry even had its own organization, The American Pageantry Association (APA) and its own publication. While the goal of a pageant was, in part, instructional, it was also a way for largely white largely Christian towns like Portsmouth to initiate foreigners into what it meant to be "American."  And while pageantry evolved out of a progressive movement focused on reforming and improving social conditions through government, it could also be used to perpetuate myths, legends, and folk tales rather than historical facts.  

As often as possible, descendants of famous townspeople were asked to portray their forebears. While early pageants often showed a link to the past by dramatizing events right up to the present, Portsmouth did not. The dozens of historic scenes in Tanner's script stopped abruptly in 1789 with the arrival of Washington. From that point on, one might infer, nothing worth mentioning had happened here.

The age of pageantry faded with the rise of talking movies and will likely never come again. Asked to explain the significance of this lost form of outdoor theatre one pageant organizer said: "How can I make the present generation understand what it meant when an entire community put its heart and soul into such a production?"   

SOURCE: For more information see American Historical Pageantry by David Glassberg (1990) available at Portsmouth Public Library. 

COMING NEXT TIME:  Who says Portsmouth and Dover were settled in 1623?  History Matters takes a closer look at a controversial question no one wants to answer.

 Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on and in local stores.