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How Portsmouth Partied in 1923



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.


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Tuesday, January 16, 2018 
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