When Pageants Were THE Thing: A Brief Look at Historical Pageantry & Tableaux in Upstate NY
Do you remember the scene in the Broadway musical & film "The Music Man" when the mayor's wife, Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn, and the ladies dance committee perform "One Grecian urn"? That small, humorous scene was actually part of a much larger late 19th and early 20th century trend that included elocution & recitation, tableaux, pageantry, the Chautauqua, and exercise for girls and women.
Pageants and tableaux viviants (French for living pictures) were very popular forms of entertainment here in Upstate New York and throughout the country. Typically pageants were part of a civic holiday celebration like the centennial of the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1914, Albany's tercentenary in 1924, or the sesquicentennial of the founding of Greenwich in 1959. Often they were steeped in local history and lore with scripts written and performed by local folks, and drawing hundreds of people in a time before movies and TV.
Above are a selection of programs and souvenir booklets from local pageants in the Holden Collection, Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library.
Below is a Pageant of Lake George program, script, and card signed by director, Miss Margaret L. Conger. The Pageant of Lake George was performed three times in August of 1912. It included both cultural and historical scenes, processions, and spoken word.
"The guidebooks... recommended allegorical tableaux viviants to represent abstract virtues of the state or nation. Such tableaux offered women, who generally were excluded from the line of march [in parades], their major opportunity to appear in public celebrations..." - (Glassberg, p.18)
The growing interest in exercise for women and girls led to, in addition to bicycling, and tennis, the inclusion of "harmonic gymnastics" known as Delsarte posing. Delsartism, named after the French actor and teacher François Delsarte, was "part pantamine, part exercise, and part self-help, promising women new level of grace, fitness, and beauty." (Kimber, p.58) Since manuals for tableaux viviants "called for smooth motions between dramatic poses" (Glassberg, p. 34) this new technique was perfect for use in tableaux and pageantry.
The women's rights activists also used pageants. As with other civic and patriotic celebrations, suffrage parades also included tableaux and pageantry. The 1913 suffrage parade culminated with a pageant on the steps of the Treasury Building, with actress Hedwig Reicher as Columbia and many attendants representing Charity, Liberty, Peace, Hop, and Justice.
Locally, a 1924 pageant in Westport, NY called Forward Into Light, recalled the plight of women to gain equal voting rights. The Torch of Liberty was passed down through the ages until it reached Inez Milholland who died on a suffrage speaking tour at age 30. Milholland and her family had an estate in Essex County, and is buried in the family plot in the Lewis Cemetery.
If this blog post has you wondering about historical pageantry and tableaux, please join us on Saturday, August 21, 2021 at 1:00 PM in City Park, Glens Falls, when local actors, historians, and singers will present a reimagining of the 1924 Forward into Light pageant.
Conger, Margaret Lynch. The Pageant of Lake George. Lake George, NY: Mirror Press, 1912.
Glassberg, David. American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Kimber, Marian Wilson. “Iowa's Nymphs, Naiads, & Graces: Performing Delsarte for the Masses.” Iowa Heritage Illustrated, 2011, 58–61.
Tisha Dolton is Librarian/Historian at The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, NY. Her areas of interest are suffrage music, suffragists of Warren and Washington Counties, local women and minority populations, and embroidery.