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How Portsmouth Partied in 1923


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.


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