In 1899, when Americans marked the last Fourth of July in the 19th century, the Washington celebration began at the first moment of Independence Day and lasted well into the next night. There were city bells ringing, cannons booming, whistles blowing and firecrackers popping along with shouts from patriots who had been cooling off with beer from the local breweries.
There was much to celebrate that day. Americans were still festive about the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which had officially ended the Spanish-American War in December 1898. And a design competition had recently been announced for the new Memorial Bridge. The Washington Senators had soundly defeated Boston the day before, and Takoma Park residents had overwhelmingly voted to build a sewage and water system.
Unlike the formally organized and publicly financed concerts and 20-minute fireworks show set for today, the holiday a century ago was celebrated in small groups or on neighborhood streets. The biggest attractions for the children, and some adults, were the homemade firecrackers of explosive powder wrapped in newspaper. D.C. police had more than 25 requests from ill people to keep their neighborhoods quiet and, according to a news story, endeavored "to protect the sick against the noise of the fireworks as much as possible."
By day, willing and unwilling residents were treated to the sounds of "Chinese crackers, toy cannons, torpedoes and other instruments of terror to nervous old ladies and cynical ancient gentlemen," according to accounts of the day. At night, it was "spinning wheels, devil-chasers, skyrockets and balloon ascensions."
A Washington Post reporter marveled at how "young America has become educated in the use of high explosives. The puny firecracker was an infrequent, unnoticed and despised medium of celebration last night. Chemicals, specially compounded, often in drug stores, and tucked in paper were used with great effect. These powders placed on car-tracks gave the heavy coaches a decided tilt when exploded, besides sending out a perfectly deafening roar."
In 1899, more than 30 names appeared on a list of those injured by explosives. It included one teenager from Northwest Washington and one from Northeast, who were showing off a can of powder to friends as they stood at Eighth and S streets NW. A girl in the group dropped a burning match into the can, causing an explosion that, "burned the faces, singed the hair and destroyed the clothes of both boys."
Ignoring the general hoopla in the streets, the patriotic societies of Washington held their celebration at a local theater rather than at the Washington Monument. The Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution sponsored the program that included a concert by the U.S. Marine Band.
The Association of the Oldest Inhabitants, in a tradition that had been established more than 30 years earlier, decorated their meeting with bunting and pictures of heroes.
The orator, Jean F.P. Garennes, spoke of the Revolutionary War, saying that the patriots "were true men. . . . They were true to their country. Its life was their life. Their hearts leaped forth a willing sacrifice for its welfare. They were true unto death, true to the principles that animated their convictions."
For the holiday week, Woodward & Lothrop department store was selling 4-by-10-inch silk flags for 10 cents, and the C. Auerbach Store at Seventh and H streets NW was having a 50 percent off sale on straw hats. A developer proclaimed that "the Stars and Stripes wave over Kenilworth, D.C., the newest, most progressive and most popular sub-division of Washington."
A Washington Post reporter concluded that American children of the future would celebrate the day with "joy and gladness from dawn until long after a reasonable bedtime."