Philly’s Storied Past Celebrated at 1912 Pageant
Ye who would learn the glory of your past
And form a forecast of the things to be
Give heed to this, a city’s trumpet blast
And see her pictured life in pageantry
And so the citizens of Philadelphia did in October of 1912, when an ornate historical pageant was staged for the general public on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in what is now Fairmount Park. This elaborate presentation, staged by Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer on the model of the pageants that were then very popular throughout England and the continent, involved scores of players and dramatized the major events of centuries of our region’s history, from the first glimpse of the Delaware Bay by Henry Hudson to the 1854 consolidation of the old city proper with the 28 surrounding districts into the metropolis we know today. For an entertaining and thorough view back at this amazing event, look no further than the Pennsylvaniana collection of Villanova University’s Digital Library, where a digitized version of the Official Pictorial and Descriptive Souvenir Book of the Historical Pageant, October Seventh To Twelfth, 1912, is mounted in its entirety and available for public viewing.
The impressive historical scope of this fascinating event was faithfully detailed for the spectator in the extensive Historical Notes which accompany each scene of the script, which itself appears unabridged. Having just spent the summer slogging through H. W. Brands’ sprawling Franklin biography The First American, I delighted in revisiting the famous scenes of colonial times, fleshed out by the notes and then dramatized in grand and often humorous fashion: the opulent Governor Johan Printz of New Sweden, living in splendor at Tinicum as his short-lived “empire” crumbled; the futile rivalry between the Dutch and Swedish as English dominance set in, where a Swedish explorer describes the Schuylkill River as “…This fine stream that empties itself into the great river like a flagon of wine down the throat of a Dutchman”; William Penn frolicking with the Lenapes at Dock Street; General Lafayette’s emotional 1824 homecoming; and the bizarrely baroque finale, in which heralding trumpeters beckon to the four corners as sprites symbolizing the 28 districts (Manayunk and Germantown from the northwest, Kingsessing and West Philadelphia from the southwest, Tacony, Northern Liberties, and Bridesburg from the northeast, Passyunk from the southeast, etc.) appear, nobly gathering in supplication around a central matronly goddess figure—Philadelphia herself. Interspersed throughout the script are color plates of costumes designed for the production: British Redcoats, French Gentlemen, and Marie Antoinette, among others.
In addition to the script, notes, and ample supplemental historical essays which make up the bulk of the text, there is a wealth of incidental materials that paint a rich portrait of early 20th century Philadelphia society. Dozens of photos of dignitaries, planning committee members, benefactors, and other participants provide an intimate glance at period dress, hairstyles, and mustaches. Even more extensive is the advertising section, which covers over 100 pages at the back of the volume. Flip through page after page, and see what industries flourished in the Philadelphia of a century ago. From bankers and insurance companies to furriers and jewelers, from horseshoes and borax soap makers to coal suppliers and gas engine manufacturers, these were the merchants who saw fit to advertise at the biggest civic event of the year. Particularly interesting are the many photos and drawings of the factory buildings used by these companies; considering the huge number of abandoned buildings in present-day Philadelphia, the ads in this book could provide valuable guidance for students of Philadelphia architectural history.
The Official Pictorial and Descriptive Souvenir Book of the Historical Pageant is unique for the view into pre-WWI Philadelphia that its printed historical content affords us. But even beyond this, a certain feature makes this particular copy one of a kind: penciled marginalia from the original owner. On page 11, roll was taken on the list of members of the Women’s Committee, and on page 51, the cast of the scene of Washington at Gray’s Ferry was heavily annotated by someone who evidently knew many of the cast members. These markings lift this volume off the bookshelf and place it in the hands of a spectator in the crowd at the actual event, 97 years ago this month!
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