The Day – History in parade

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The banner on the convertible read, “I dreamed that I participated in the Mystical Tercentenary Parade in my Maidenform bra. It was July 17, 1954, and Mystic was celebrating his 300th birthday with a grand parade.

There were marching bands, horse-drawn vehicles, vintage cars, chariots and, yes, a woman without a gown perched in the back of a car sponsored by a local clothing store. I remember the day (but not the provocative young lady) because I was on a float with other children from Broadway Elementary School. The painting was a colonial classroom. The schoolmaster (our principal) wore buckles on his breeches and hat; my friends and I wore fake colonial clothes and pretended to study our hornbooks. The enthusiastic crowds lining the parade route made us feel like very important 11 year olds.

The Mystic River Historical Society has an extensive collection of parade images, many of which can be viewed online. The slides and photos from the 1954 event reflect the historic past of the village. For example, a float resembling a small boat was entered by the descendants of Robert Burrows, a 17th century city founder who carried passengers by ferry across the Mystic River (probably under the I-95 span of today). The Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored a tank at the Battle of Groton Heights. Another tank depicting the early years of the war featured Fort Rachel, the site of defense preparations during the War of 1812.

The parade was also an opportunity for local businesses to advertise, and for some people to show off a bit. One photo shows a relaxed and in control man on top of a penny-farthing, one of those early bikes with a huge front wheel counterbalanced by a small one at the rear.

The MRHS website also documents parades from other years, but photographs from the 1884 Mother Hubbard parade appear to be missing. However, their newsletters contain written accounts of the event, and while it sounded hilarious to some people back then, it looks bizarre and cringe-worthy today.

Mother Hubbard parades were held across the country, motivated by a woman campaigning to become the next President of the United States. It took decades before women could even vote, but Belva Lockwood rose to the challenge.

Belva was remarkable. She went to university, unusual at the time for women, became an educator, and then studied for the bar. She was one of the first female lawyers in the United States and successfully sought congressional approval to litigate cases in the Supreme Court. She was passionate about suffrage, women’s rights, equal pay for female teachers, the global peace and temperance movement. She ran for president twice, but of course the chances of success were nil. Yet his candidacy was viewed by some men (and unfortunately some women) as threatening.

Mystic’s Mother Hubbard procession started at the bridge and ended at Steamboat Wharf. It was led by the Mystic Cornet Band, whose drum major wielded a broomstick as a stick. There were over 100 participants, mostly men, many of whom wore dressing gowns and hats. Some were pushing strollers or grabbing rag dolls and giant baby bottles. The men on horseback amused the crowd with their attempts to manage their long skirts. The closing ceremony featured a man in drag, believed to be from a New London newspaper, reading a satirical poem. A Mystic newspaper characterized the event as displaying “large-scale” humor.

In the long run, Belva had the final say. Today his photo is on display at the National Portrait Gallery with many of America’s most important actors and personalities. The images of the men who laughed at her do not.

Due to the pandemic, many traditional parades have been canceled. This is inconsequential compared to all the deprivation and heartache that COVID-19 has caused. Yet the parades are important. They celebrate birthdays, holidays and various cultures. These are opportunities for people to have fun with each other and honor the things that are dear to them. Captured in photographs, the parades become time capsules preserving the past so that we can appreciate it again.



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