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Historical Pageants as a Genealogical Tool

Communities often celebrate centennials and other milestones with elaborate historical pageants, or plays. Judy Rosella Edwards explains the genealogical background of these events that continue to exist.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: JudyRosella Edwards
Word Count: 1854 (approx.)
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Historical pageants are, in fact, historical and date back to the 1300s in some cultures. Since the mid- to late 1800's, historical pageants have been a staple of many communities and continue today. While they have a tradition of being perhaps less than accurate from a scholarly view, pageants are not to be dismissed.

The Pageant

Pageants consist of a multiple-act plays, with each focusing on an aspect of a community's history. At the very least, they devote an act to the community's founding; an act focusing on the development of the community; and a final act looking toward the future. Some pageants are much longer and may even involve several days of pageantry.

The pageant attempts to involve as many local residents as possible. Anyone who can don a costume and walk onto a stage can usually garner a role.

Creation of the Pageant

Celebratory pageants focus on events like Founders Day or milestones such as a Centennial. They are elaborate and complicated productions.

From the early 1900s, the John B. Rogers Production Company created a plethora of pageants using a formula. Located in Fostoria, Ohio, John B. Rogers began supplying the necessities for creating a pageant in 1903. Rogers supplied the costumes, sets, lights and scripts for amateur theatre. A collection of scores and other John B. Rogers memorabilia from 1929 to 1934 is stored at the Smithsonian. Rogers moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1977.

However, the company lived on the hoof, both in terms of travelling to communities across the country as well as hoofing it onstage. Not every community has stageworthy dancers, singers, and actors. John B. Rogers could supply contract talent, upon request, to supplement the local amateurs' efforts.

From a genealogical perspective, these contract performers left a legacy in print. Look for their names among the John B. Rogers programs.

Spinning the Tale

Pageants are sometimes viewed with disdain by scholars, and others. The pageant follows a formula or script, with details supplied by local residents. Usually, the result more closely resembled community image local residents wished to present.

Local businesses and others hoping to bend history to their advantage sometimes tainted history. It was not necessarily intentional, but it did create some unique aspects for the genealogist since it was a history as leaders wanted to remember it – and not always as it was.

The historical society is one of the first local entities invited to help write the pageant script, based on a sample provided by a pageant production company. Historical societies arose in the late 1800s, so there has always been plenty of society data at hand, even in those early years of the John B. Rogers Company, starting from 1903.

The script is a template. The historical society plugs in names and dates and hopefully something unique and interesting for those who have attended a pageant elsewhere created from the same template.

Others join in the fun by adding their two cents. Civic groups, churches, businesspersons, and anyone with some new tidbit to pep up the story gets involved. John B. Rogers, in particular, thrived on involving "the little man" who seldom participated in community events. Rogers gave them a voice and a square foot or two on stage.

The names of all societies and organizations who helped write the script appear in the pageant program as a thank-you. Sometimes every member of a group is listed. On occasion, they appeared in a group photo, dressed in period costume.

Theatre

The pageant is theatre in the sense that is a performance. It is not reliable history. The pageant is not always written by historians verifying their data and citing their sources. An excellent exception is "The Illini trail a pageant play commemorating the Illinois centennial".

Much of pageantry is written from memory and based on folklore, speculation, and enthusiasm. Production companies have traditional suggested writers use newspapers and secondary sources for their information. It is fun and sometimes much cheerier than the truth. Especially in light of such recommendations as Virginia Tanner's comment that "America has never done the Red Man justice. It remains for her in Pageantry to finish him off completely."[1]

There is useful data among the community-created history for the genealogist. A pageant without a program just isn't a pageant.

The obvious focus of most pageant programs is to promote business. They are filled with paid advertisements by local businesses that help support the pageant. Often they include photographs of local business people dressed in historical costumes.

The John B. Rogers company extensively promoted, and may have even invented, the Brothers of the Brush and the Sisters of the Swish. Genealogists need to put these terms in context when they encounter them.

The Brothers of the Brush has more than one meaning. As early as 1887, Henry James referred to the artists as "brothers of the brush" in "The Madonna of the Future." The pageant world redefined the Brothers of the Brush as those men who support a local pageant by growing beards and mustaches regardless of their painting ability.

Any Brother of the Brush who is a contender for a best beard competition is sure to have their photograph appear in the local newspaper. Those who insist on shaving risk facing a Kangaroo Kourt and suffering some mischievous punishment such as being doused with water.

The Kangaroo Kourt dates back to the California Gold Rush era and typically involves a pre-determined and scripted outcome. Any reference to a Kangaroo Kourt is a hint that an event took place after 1853 when the term was first recorded, whether it is in reference to a pageant or not. Historical pageants made Kangaroo Kourt a catch phrase and a permanent tradition.

Kangaroo Kourt involves "prosecutors" whose names appear in newspaper accounts and the pageant program. To the genealogist, the Kangaroo Kourt serves to document that those on either side of the "law" were in a given location at a specific time in history.

To a certain extent, the Kangaroo Kourt reveals something else. Those involved were usually businesspersons and more affluent and influential members of the community. While the goal was to encourage everyone in the community to participate in the celebration, the "little man" was seldom included in the Kangaroo Kourt activities.

If an ancestor was a manual laborer, they probably were ignored by the kangaroo court regardless of facial hair. If they were a banker, they might have been a prosecutor. If they were a small-business person who dared to shave, they might have been charged by the court for breaking the rules. The fun probably got their picture in the paper.

The Sisters of the Swish were not usually subject to the kangaroo court. They did make the papers by having numerous teas, dances, and other events. These events make it possible to place those individuals in a specific place at a given time.

Along with the Brothers and Sisters, are the performers. Anyone who can come close to carrying a tune, especially with assistance of a large chorus, often becomes a soloist and their names appear in the pageant program. With a cast of 500, only the key players' names appear in print.

Pageants often include ongoing activities. Children participate in bicycle contests and costume competitions. Teenagers participate in horseback riding or some other activity common to the area. Of course, their names appear in the pageant program and the local newspaper and there may be photographs. In an effort to include everyone, the pageant program may list everyone right down to security – who is likely to be the local police force.

Collecting Talent

One of the embarrassing challenges of the pageant is portraying a history that is gone awry. The Native American residents are among the most difficult to cast since, in almost every little town, these residents have been displaced.

In a perhaps less than politically correct suggestion, early pageant companies suggested substituting Italians for Native Americans. While the very suggestion is impropriate in so many ways, it does provide an unintentional insight into the community. The intention was to cast dark-skinned individuals as Native Americans. However unsavory, it might provide a possible clue to the genetic background of those who did portray Native Americans.

Such profiling has fallen by the wayside. Most pageants appear to base Native American heredity on the pageant costuming and heavy makeup.

When sufficient talent is lacking and a community has funds, they hire performers. Local singers, actors, and dancers sometimes fill the bill. The cream of the crop were the troupes of contract performers who specialized in these brief one-night-only pageants. They provided income and gave them a chance to travel. No doubt, they appreciated being the most talented ones on the stage and sharing their talents with small town residents who dream of bigger things.

Trinkets

A big part of the celebration has always been the trinkets. John B. Rogers, and probably other companies, produce special Wood Nickels and other currency imprinted with the year of the celebration. They are often offered for sale on internet auction sites today.

The pageant programs are the most lasting memorabilia and can be quite helpful to genealogists regardless of the quality of the history they preserve. The reliable history within the pageant program are the names and photographs of those who participated. Even people who don't actively participate may appear in a group workplace photograph in the program, congratulating the community on reaching this milestone event and wishing everyone a prosperous future.

For more information about historical pageants see the following:

  • Glassberg, D. (1990). American historical pageantry: The uses of tradition in the early twentieth century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Krupp, P. H., & Krupp, N. G. (2001). Fostoria, Ohio. Images of America. Charleston, SC: Arcadia.

Finding Pageant Programs

Programs from many pageants have been digitized and are available online for free. To find them, do an online search. John B. Rogers was one of the more popular production companies. Searching on the company name will generate a number of pageants from the past century.

Search for "pageant" and "centennial" to generate even more hits, especially if you include the name of a community. Also try replacing "centennial" with "sesquicentennial" or "founders day."

A Sample of Pageant Programs Online

Mount Vernon IN Posey County water pageant celebrating Indiana's centennial (1916)
Clinton IL Historical pageant in celebration of the centennial of Clinton, Illinois (1935)
Illinois The Illini trail, a pageant play commemorating the Illinois centennial (1918)
Mattoon IL Mattoon memories : souvenir program, Mattoon Centennial, 1855-1955, Pageant and Celebration, September 4-10 (1955)
Nevada The pageant of Nevada history; in celebration of the semi-centennial of Nevada statehood (1914)
Illinois State University With faith in the future, 1857-1957 : centennial pageant-drama, Illinois State Normal University (1957)
Lincoln NE The pageant of Lincoln, Nebraska; a semi-centennial masque at the Coliseum, State fair grounds, Lincoln, Nebraska, June 12-14, 1917; auspices of the University of Nebraska, the Lincoln commercial club (1917)
Madison County IL The historical pageant of Madison County (1912)

[1] Virginia Tanner, "The dances of American Pageantry: Realist," American Pageant Association Bulletin, No. 64, November 1, 1919.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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