John G. Craig Diaries. UPenn Ms. Coll. 113. Volume 2. Pages 156-7

As readers of this blog know, I like to always do a July 4th post about something related here at Penn. However, instead of picking a particular item or collection as in previous years I thought I’d dip into our rich collection of more than 100 manuscript diaries and journals for some first-hand accounts of Independence Day over time. Rather than trying to intentionally pick those diaries which might yield the most interesting results I chose from the collection more or less at random to get a few glimpses of how everyday people celebrated or experienced the 4th. Most of our diaries here date from the nineteenth century with a concentration towards the end of the century but otherwise span a wide range of places and writers but I’ve limited the selection here to only those writers who were American as they were the most likely to observe the holiday (I’ve also tried to keep spelling close to the original).

The longest of the accounts I came across comes from the extensive diaries of John G. Craig. A Philadelphia firefighter, Craig seems to have mixed feelings about the mayhem, fire, and noise occasioned by the holiday. Here, his observations on a soggy Independence Day in 1895 (UPenn Ms. Coll. 113, volume 2, pp. 155-7):

After dark despite the rain the sky was brilliantly illuminated with beautiful Rockets, fine Balloons, Roman Candles, and Colored fires, which were discharged in great profusion. The Programme which had been arranged for the celebration of the day was entirely upset by the Rain, it consisted of a Military Review and a Sham Battle at Belmont a Balloon Ascension at Memorial Hall, and a grand display of fire works on the Girard Avenue Bridge, there was also to be various various exercises in the Public Squares. The Review, and the Sham Battle at Belmont took place in the forenoon, before the Rain began. The Balloon ascension and the fire works were postponed. The Pick Nickers in the Park had a rough time, and were driven to seek shelter wherever they could find it. As usual there was a number of accidents from the careless handling of fire works &c The fires were trifling and few in number. It was the noisiest 4th of July I have ever known

As far as I know, celebrations in Philadelphia today will not involve any mock battles staged for “Pick Nickers” on Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park! Independence Day was celebrated with as much noise but perhaps less revelry in the wartime US Navy in 1861 as evidenced in the diary of George J. Burnap who served aboard the U.S.S. Roanoke near Hampton Roads, Virginia (UPenn Ms. Coll. 216):

To day is the eighty sixth anniversary of the Independence of the United States. Clear beautiful day. Flags flying from all the Frigates and shipping in port. Everything on board as on any other day. At 12. Fortress Monroe commenced fireing the National salute, 34 guns, The Minnesota following, then the Cumberland, Commodore Pendergast’s Flag Ship.


George J. Burnap diary. UPenn  Ms. Coll. 216

Several of the diaries in our collection date from the Civil War era and it’s interesting to see the contrast in entries between them, from Burnap’s relatively cheery note, to mundane slightly humorous entries like that of a Mrs. Barber from Derry, New Hampshire who made the following note in her diary in 1863 (UPenn Ms. Coll. 215):

We have cake made. Made ice creams. Big White – mother of turky – they are 4 weeks today – laid one Egg. She is Patriotic.

I couldn’t resist pairing this with a diary from a young woman on the other side of the war who recorded an entry on the very same day. In her diaries, kept over the duration of the Civil War, Georgietta McLaughlin often reflected on how much her life had changed for the worse since the conflict started. Her entries for July 4th 1863 and 1864 when she was about 22 years old are decidedly morose and reflect no celebration but rather a yearning for Independence days of the past (UPenn Ms. Coll. 842):


What a contrast between this day and the 4th of July 1861 – that I spent in old WmsBurg and in the evening made down to the Battery for the first-time, saw the 10th Ga. Regt. on parade, to-day I am in the disagreeable City of Lynchburg, very sick. I’ll not complain however as I have my husband and mother with me. I am thankful for my blessings.


The 4th of this month always makes me feel sad but brings back the good old times at home, I don’t like to think of a anything connected with home, it so sadly  changed. Three years ago today. I went down to Fort Magruder near Williamsburg for the first time. Cousin Hattie, Sallie & I drove down late in the evening, was quite a pleasant time…I wonder if the good old times can ever be restored again – never for me!

Finally, for a take on the holiday abroad, I looked to the dense diaries of Florence Albrecht and her family during their 1888 trip to Japan. These diaries and accompanying photos have been digitized and provide a unique glimpse into a wealthy American family abroad in East Asia. In 1888 they spent July 4th touring Buddhist shrines, an excursion which covers several pages of the diary, but which begins with a note marking the strangeness of the holiday disconnect (UPenn Ms. Coll. 476):

 Today we celebrated Independence Day in rather an unusual way for us. We got up at seven and after a bath and breakfast – finished under the watchful gaze of half a dozen curio dealers we had a lunch put up and made an early start for the temples.

Though none of the sentiments and brief observations above are of any major interest individually I like to think of the diary collection as ripe for investigation of daily life across space and time. All the extant 19th-century diaries put together wouldn’t come close to recording the number of life experiences as a single minute of contemporary social media which makes what we take to be the mundane observations in these varied texts all the more rare and personalized.