Our Ancestors’ Fourth of July Celebrations

By Maureen A. Taylor

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ancestors celebrated 4th july

How did your ancestral town celebrate the Fourth of July? In this image by John Lewis Krimmel, the citizens of Philadelphia honor the day in 1819.

Researching Fourth of July celebrations in historical newspapers published in your ancestral hometowns can tell you how your family marked the occasion. I learned that in my city, the day started with cannon fire at dawn. Later in the day, a balloon ascension was held in the downtown.

Providence, RI, was well known for featuring balloon ascensions on Independence Day. In the first such ascension, in 1800, the passengers in the basket were a dog and a cat. Local celebrity Prof. James K. Allen and his son experimented with balloons in Providence before and after the Civil War. During the war, the Allens flew surveillance balloons for the Union Army, under the command of Gen. Ambrose Burnside.


Each generation celebrated the Fourth of July differently.

In this Library of Congress print from circa 1875, families gather for picnics. Today, July Fourth fireworks, parades and concerts are common activities.

Patriotic symbols like flags often appear in family photos. Count the stars in the flags to pinpoint a time frame for the image. The number of stars changed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as new states joined the union.

One of my favorite photos featuring patriotic symbolism is a stereograph of Fontanella Weller. Her father posed her as Columbia in 1876.


If you want to learn more about how and why we celebrate the 4th of July, Peter de Bolla’s The Fourth of July (2007) is an good read.

Happy 4th of July!

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor: