EMERGING VOICES: "The Pageant Is the Thing": The Contradictions of Women's Clubs and Civic Education during the Americanization Era

By White, Kate | College English, July 2015 | Go to article overview

EMERGING VOICES: "The Pageant Is the Thing": The Contradictions of Women's Clubs and Civic Education during the Americanization Era


White, Kate, College English


In 1921, the city of New Orleans filled the fairground amphitheater with a production of Nina Lamkin's popular, patriotic pageant America, Yesterday and Today. A newspaper article describes the spectacle: "The amphitheater at the fairgrounds was filled at 4 o'clock on Thursday afternoon, when the horse races followed, without extra charge, by the pageant that told the story of the making of America." The newspaper article goes on to describe the genuine commitment of community members to participate in the pageant, indicating that "some farmers and their families drove 10 miles for rehearsals of their episodes" for over a month ("Orleans Bureau" 85). As evidenced by the article in Farm Bureau News, small and large towns alike heartily believed in the pageant's ability to generate a spirit of neighborliness and participation in civic duty within local communities. During the first half of the twentieth century, pageantry was wildly popular in America for people of all ages. In 1913, William Chauncey Langdon, president of the American Pageant Association, proudly announced, "North and South, East and West, from the cities and from the hay fields, from the mountains and from the seashore-everywhere-the word 'Pageant' is heard more and more every year-even every month. The ordinary bystander might well say, 'It is a craze!' And so it is" (Langdon). The pageantry movement spanned 1905-1925 and reached its peak with the founding of the American Pageant Association in 1913.

The American pageant, which typically lasted two and half hours, often celebrated a town's local history and involved hundreds, even thousands, of community members gathered to perform it in public. Much as David Gold asserts in Rhetoric at the Margins, these local histories matter, and by looking at how communities responded to nationwide ideas of civic education, scholars can glimpse a more dynamic view of the history of civic education and its contradictions. Making use of acting, music, dance, costume, and props, typical pageants consisted of different episodes in chronological order that depicted a historic event. Locals, often amateurs, performed in the pageants; the pageant often celebrated their city, state, or town. A classic pageant began with a scene of the town's origin, often featuring the founders as Europeans who decided to immigrate to the United States. Characteristic pageant plots also consisted of signing a peace treaty with Native Americans, a call to arms for the American Revolution, and the advent of statehood in the West. As evidenced by the epigraph at the beginning of this article, the majority of patriotic pageants centered on the pageant hero, who depicted "the deeds of the fathers," which reproduced traditional gender roles and assumed "whiteness" as the position of authority.

Clearly, pageants served a pedagogical function; they instructed the audience in how to perform their duties as citizens. Pride in the town and nation were the goal of the pageant's structure and genre. No matter how the community chose to tell its story, the pageant typically ended in a patriotic celebration to bolster pride in civic duty. The big finale often included a group singing the national anthem and waving American flags. Thus, patriotic pageants served two primary purposes: to educate the audience about American history and to teach its members about civic engagement. Though the goal of Progressive era pageantry was touted as democratic, the reality reflected the complexity of the changing times-a postwar flood of immigrants, suffrage for women, and new roles for African Americans.

Based on archival documents1 from the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), this article seeks to address the following research questions: What do the patriotic pageants sponsored by the GFWC illustrate about civic education in the Americanization era? What can we learn about civic education and the use of particular rhetorical forms from twentieth-century pageants and organizations such as the GFWC? …

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