This parade float photo taken near 21st and Pacific Avenue seems innocent, patriotic and elaborately decorative in the style that late Victorians loved. The glass plate negative photo (note the chipped glass corner) is a trove of historical details and suggestions from the last few years before the onslaught of the First World War and the coming of the automobile.
The twin team, horse drawn float is sponsored by the Tacoma chapter of the Ladies of the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), the Civil War veterans organization that was reaching the end of its member’s lifetimes. 1913 would have been the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg and everyone along the parade route would have heard stories about the July 1st through 3rd blood bath during the most uncertain days of the terrible war. A young woman with a Statue of Liberty headdress stands atop the dome ringed by ladies who presumably lived through the civil war on the Union side. But what is not enblazened on the banners and signs is the political statement in their crisp white dresses. Women in Tacoma and then Washington State had achieved suffrage in 1909 and 1910 but the struggle was still on the for the 19th amendment guaranteeing all American women the right to vote. White was the color of the political fight for suffrage and these ladies were very much in warrior mode on this overcast 4th of July.
The 4th of July had particular historical meaning in Tacoma. No patriotic or political orator would have dared belt out an unamplified speech without mentioning that the first celebration
of American Independence Day held in the Pacific Northwest was near Steilacoom in 1841 by the American Exploring Expedition. At the time the entire Oregon territory including Washington, Western Montana and the Idaho panhandle was held by the British and the Americans under a joint occupation treaty and throwing a party for gaining independence from the King of England was a bit cheeky. The U.S. Expedition mapped the entire Puget Sound region and named almost every island, harbor, mountain and geological feature they came across beginning with Commencement Bay. Five year later the boundary with British empire Canada was settled at the 49th parallel and the territory mapped by the U.S. explorers became American soil.
There is a suggestion of darkness in this photograph as well and it is steeped in the history of the Civil War. Ironically the costumed and hooded horses pulling the celebration of the Union Army ‘s victory are almost identical to the horses that carried the hooded riders in a motion picture that
was made by Southern born D.W. Griffith just a year later. The film was Birth of a Nation (1915) and it lionized the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederate army. The three hour epic film triggered a revival of the KKK that was centered in the mid west and even the Pacific Northwest in the late teens and twenties.
The photo also is unique for its architectural background. All of the sturdy brick masonry buildings in the distance are still standing and in use more than a century later. If the DAR float was reaching the end of its Pacific Avenue parade route today it would have passed by Union Station (that was also there in 1913 having been completed in 1911), the University of Washington Tacoma Campus and the reused warehouses that are becoming the Brewery Blocks. For all the social changes, struggles and adjustments to 20th Century modernity that were just ahead for these Tacomans, some things would indeed stay the same.
Photo: Washington State Historical Society, Catalog Id: 2012.0.338