Monday, May 30, 2016

How did the average person celebrate Memorial Day in 1916?

We've been looking, as the few readers of this blog know, at 1916 a lot recently. This started off with the Punitive Expedition centennial (which we're still looking at and will be until its conclusion, next year), but we've also been figuring in a lot of day in the life type of stuff, and general 1916 news.  Indeed, as we've noted, some might start to grouse that this blog is becoming the This Day In 1916 blog, which it isn't (or doesn't intend to be).  Probably the flood of miscellanea that figures here so regularly, however, keeps that from occurring.

Anyhow, one thing I started to wonder is this.  How did the average American actually celebrate a day like this, Memorial Day, in 1916?  And by this I mean outside of the public observations?

Here, as pretty much everywhere, there are public observances.  One big one here is that middle school students decorate the graves of veterans in our local cemeteries, as depicted here on Some Gave All

Oddly, a big even this Memorial Day is one of the local high school's graduation ceremonies. That's not a normal Memorial Day event anywhere.  I can't recall the reason why this was scheduled this way, but the school district is fairly tightly constrained on when a graduation must occur and, if I recall correctly, use of the facility was not possible for any other day.  The local principal is game, stating:   "being able to celebrate Memorial Day with 400 graduates and over 3,000 people in the stands up at the Events Center, I just don't know how we could do it any better."  Last time, however, there were some miffed people, as in the case of this comment from 2014:  "It is as if [the district has] forgotten the sacrifices made to make this country what it is".  This time, with an oilfield slump going on, there haven't been many complaints.

But what about the other observances, other than public, that we could have found in 1916?  What did people do.

Now, I suppose they visited local cemeteries to visit the graves of their own veterans.  In 1916, there were still Civil War veterans left alive, so that would have been very much in mind, I'd suppose.  But what else occurred on this national holiday, in an age when more people took holidays off (and indeed, when I was young that was the case as well).

For example, in this day and age, we can expect a lot of barbecues on Memorial Day.  It's almost become the standard expectation of the holiday.

Did people barbecue in 1916?

I'm sure they had outdoor eating, perhaps more really than we do now (or perhaps not). But did they grill hamburgers?  Or was it a dog sort of day?  Was a lot of beer consumed?

I'm guessing the answer on the beer is likely yes.

 Shriners barbecue, October 21, 1922.  This must have been a pretty big event as Budweiser was clearly sponsoring it.  This isn't 1916, of course, but 1922 wasn't that much later

Did they barbecue?

Well, maybe.  To my surprise, there's a lot of photographs of barbecues in that period:

Big barbecue, September 11, 1915, featuring elk.  This looks sort of like we might expect on the Olympic Highway in some localities today, but for the comparatively formal dress.

Rabbit barbecue, following rabbit hunt, Texas, 1905.

GAR Barbecue, 1895.

None of these are backyard barbecues, of course. But it seems pretty clear to me that if you went to a big outdoor gathering, and there were some to be sure, there was a good chance that you were going to eat barbecue.  A lot of it seems to be the really traditional type at that, with roasted pigs and sausage, and other meats.

That's quite a bit different, of course, from the backyard barbecue or the backyard grill.  Were people firing those up, and maybe inviting a few friends over for burgers and dogs, and a bottle of beer?  

Well, maybe, but not in the same way.

The backyard gas grill wasn't invented until the 1950s, so that was clearly out.  Surprisingly, perhaps, the common charcoal grill wasn't around until that time either, so its a near contemporary of the gas grill.  Commercial charcoal briquettes were first introduced by the Ford Motor Company (yes, Ford) as a byproduct of automobile production, as a lot of wood went into early cars and they were trying to figure out what to do with the scraps.  and you'll note these barbecues tend to feature the proverbial pig in the ground, although I'm sure they weren't all that way.

I've seen, of course, outdoor brick barbecues, including at least one I'd fear to use in nearly any circumstance, and I'm sure people did that. And there there are fire pits with grates, which would be somewhat similar.  So I'm sure that some use was made of such things, although it would also be the case that most people didn't.

Stone and iron outdoor barbecue circa 1940s.

And I'd guess the barrel type of barbecue, or smoker, like the ones my former neighbors had, that they fueled with mesquite, can't be a new item either.  None of which is to say that the average person would have fired any of these types of things up on a typical early 20th Century Memorial Day, or any other day.

Even if they were barbecuing something, it probably wasn't hamburgers, the staple for such things today.  Hamburgers, in the fashion we conceive of them, the "hamburger sandwich", originated in the late 19th Century to the early 20th Century but they didn't become a really popular item until after World War One. White Castles, one of the first hamburger chains, dates to the 1920s.  So, in 1916, we couldn't expect hamburgers to be grilled up in the backyard, even if a person grilled up anything in the backyard, which as we can see would have been a lot less common.  People used hamburger, of course, but the hamburger, as in the sandwich, wasn't around quite yet.  It came roaring in when it did, but it hadn't arrived, except in a few localities on a local basis.  Indeed, if you ordered one, you'd most likely be getting fried hamburger, which is what a hamburger actually is. Salisbury Steak, in other words (which is the same thing).

FWIW, the Library of Congress credits Louis Lunch, a lunch wagon in New Haven Connecticut as inventing the hamburger, albeit with slabs of toast, not buns.  The restaurant is still in business and still serves hamburgers in that fashion.

Well, what about hot dogs?

You'd have a better chance of running into these.  Hot dogs have been around in common food circulation since the mid 19th Century.  Indeed, they had an association with street food and with baseball by the early 20th Century.

New York hot dog carts, 1906.

None of which means that people were serving up a lot of hot dogs at Memorial Day gatherings in 1916.  But maybe a few people did.

If there were backyard Memorial Day gatherings therefore, I'm guessing that they'd be more like the July 4th gathering depicted in A River Runs Through It.  That is, people cooked stuff and brought it. I'm guessing that would have more likely been the norm.

Which isn't to say that they gathered much on that day at all.  I'm sure some folks did.  I'd guess that some veterans of the Civil War did, in the north and west.  At this time, and well after it, Confederate Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, was a different day in the south.  Oddly enough, the first Confederate Memorial Day came a few years before Memorial Day.  In 1916, this tradition would have still been a somber southern one.

Which leads me back to where I started off.  I'm speculating, and don't know the answer to my question.  Maybe somebody here does?


Rich said...

I'd suspect that Memorial Day was a whole lot different in the past than what it is today.

When I was a little kid (9 or 10?), I remember going with my grandparents and Uncle Dave to the cemetery on Memorial Day. To understand the story, you'd have to know who Uncle Dave was. Uncle Dave was born sometime around 1890 and was originally from Arkansas before he moved to OK.

My grandparents were a generation or so younger than he was, grew up in the same area as he lived, and ended up living on the farm neighboring his. By the time my mother was born, Uncle Dave's wife and children had died (it seems like there were a number of influenza deaths in the '20's), and Uncle Dave had been "adopted" into the extended family (that might be another regional thing).

But the point of all that explanation is that he was actually alive in 1916 and some of what he did in later life might have been what he was doing as an adult back then.

The way I remember it, when we went with him to the cemeteries (there were more than one) on Memorial Day there was a detailed process of cleaning up around the family graves, followed with a picnic type of lunch with fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, and pie.

If I had to guess, I'd think that at least in rural farm country, Memorial Day would have been a similar event in 1916, with the a sort of family reunion type of gathering at the cemetery followed by a simple picnic lunch.

Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

Very interesting Rich, thanks for posting that.

Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

I take it that Uncle Dave was not a blood relative then?

FWIW, I've noted the conferring of "uncle" and "aunt" titles here in rural communities, where there is no blood relationship. It's confusing for outsiders. Because of that I actually received the comment "well you are all related" from a town person about an extended rural family here that I have no blood relationship with at all. However, as my wife comes from the same rural community and that "aunt" and "uncle" title are used fairly commonly it must be the case that believe that we are related. Indeed, it's not the first time I've run across that.

Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

One minor thing I'll note is that it's become really common in recent years for people to give price discounts to veterans for these holidays on one thing or another, or to otherwise honor them, even as the military has become increasingly smaller.

Yesterday I stopped by the grocery store and the clerk asked me if I had ever been in the service. I said yes, but that this didn't entitle me to a discount on milk. "Too late" she stated, she'd already given me one. Odd experience.

Rich said...

"...I take it that Uncle Dave was not a blood relative then?..."

No, he wasn't blood-related. He lived until he was about 95, used to watch me and my brother when he was in his eighties, and until I got older, I just assumed that everyone had an Uncle Dave in their family.

Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

Everyone might have.

I can think of two people who were referred to as relatives when I was a kid even though they were not blood relatives. They were actually relatives of relatives, by marriage. Indeed, I'll attend the funeral of one later this week.

This, of course, in a community where I had a lot of relatives. We're constantly told we live in a "mobile society", with little thought into whether that's good or bad, and I wonder if that would know mean that such references are a thing of the past for many people. Indeed, we loose track of our actual blood relatives pretty easily now, sadly.