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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Pageantry: Meming American Ideals In 1914

Local historian Matt Hewson explains how pageantry back in 1914 was used to impart certain themes to the public at large. 


 PLATTSBURGH CITY - Aug. 6, 2012

I didn't know pageantry from a posthole until I attended an informative lecture this evening at the Clinton County Historical Association.

Pageantry in this case refers not to a beauty contest but a staged civic event in which keys scenes from local history were acted out, a craze in the early 20th Century.

Thanks to the presentation by local historian Matt Hewson I learned how historical pageantry was used by wealthy progressives back then to impart values to everyone across America, including immigrants.  Language was no barrier when it came pageantry: the key was visual story-telling.

Locally pageantry reached out to French-Canadian immigrants in the Plattsburgh area during the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh.  Matt compared a pageant to a silent movie.  The actors spoke no words but through exaggerated gestures and emoting they conveyed a story that everyone could follow, even those in the audience who only spoke French.

I could grok this visual aspect of pageantry.  After all, I remember how Kmart would draw customers to a particular section of the store with a portable blue light flashing away, announcing a sale suddenly in progress.  No matter what language a shopper spoke, he knew to dash to that aisle to take advantage of a low-price item.

But pageantry, I noted, was much more involved than the Kmart Blue Light Special.  After all, Kmart didn't throw in special effects like explosive sounds and smoke.  And outside of Martha Stewart and Jaclyn Smith, it wasn't really into role modeling.

Historical figures with admirible qualities, explained Matt, were chosen to appeal to a broad audience, even former enemies like British General John Burgoyne.  The message was that the United States and England were now friends, that what happened during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 was just some fighting between two brothers.  The younger brother proved his mettle to the older one.

This message fit into what was happening back in 1914, said Matt.  With World War I raging England needed help from the States, food and war materials.  So the average citizen had to be convinced that he, too, would profit from aiding England, even though in reality the little man would see little, if any, profit.  Matt compared it to the "trickle down" economics of the Reagan Era.

Note to myself: Those suckers who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

So where did they find actors to portray historical figures for the pageants held in 1914 on the grounds of the Plattsburgh barracks?  Matt said that Commodore Thomas Macdonough was portrayed by his grandson.  No mention was given of the grandson's thespian skills.

During the Q&A that followed Matt Hewson's lecture someone asked why Macdonough gets all the attention while General Alexander Macomb -- who won the battle on land -- is more or less forgotten.  Matt thought it was because ships sailing on water were more "sexy" than just foot soldiers marching across the ground.


With his PowerPoint presentation Matt Hewson explains that US and British flags were held at the same height during the 100th celebration of the Battle of Plattsburgh, promoting the theme of two brothers now equals.

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