Fourth of July Dinners Prior to the Civil War

Researched by James Heintze. All rights reserved.

The gathering together to share in food and drink was an important Independence Day ritual that served as a venue for story telling, sharing memories of times past, drinking toasts, and engaging in lively discussions and debates about a myriad of topics ranging from politics to women. One of the earliest dinners held in celebration of the Fourth of July occurred in 1777 in Philadelphia for Congress and guests, and included the "President and Supreme Executive Council, and Speaker of the Assembly of this State, the General Officers and Colonels of the army, and strangers of eminence, and the members of the several Continental Boards in town (Virginia Gazette,18 July 1777, 2-3).

Typical places for dining included taverns, public buildings, coffee houses, hotels, school houses, and residences. However, depending on the weather, many events were held preferably outdoors. Picnics and barbecues were set up in common green areas, near a spring, or under a grove of trees, for protection from the heat of the day. For example, in Washington City in 1795, over 100 persons gathered near Rock Creek for a dinner prepared by the owner of the Washington Tavern (Columbian Chronicle, 7 July 1795). In Frederick, Md., in 1805, the town's residents assembled for dinner at Mr. John Dare's spring, near the banks of the Monocacy River (The Hornet, 9 July 1805, 3), and in Annapolis in 1812, "a handsome dinner prepared by Mr. Isaac Parker, on the College [St. John's] Green, under the shade of that majestic Poplar. . ." (Maryland Gazette,9 July 1812, 2) was another typical setting.

Public dinners tended to draw large numbers of persons. Association and society affairs were usually limited to members and invited guests. In Petersburg, Va., in 1826, for example, 200 citizens dined at Poplar Spring (Richmond Enquirer, 11 July 1826, 1) and in Worcester, Mass., in that year, 400 persons dined in the Town Hall, the food provided by Mr. Haynes (Massachusetts Yeoman, 8 July 1826, 2). In Charleston in 1831, at a Union Party celebration, an unusually large dinner event there included 1400 persons, and there was not enough space to accomodate all of them:

The dinner party, was we doubt not, the largest ever assembled on any occasion in this city, amounting to upwards of fourteen hundred persons. The very extensive building erected specially for the purpose, on the extensive lot on the corner of Meeting and George-Sts. covering a space of 45 feet in width, by 150 feet in length, was found inadequate to accomodate all who had assembled, and from 200 to 300 persons were obliged alternately to stand up and exchange places with those who were seated. The entertainment was abundant, and for so numerous a company enjoyed "the feast of reason and the flow of soul" with more than usual delight (Charleston Courier,6 July 1831, 2).

One of the largest dinners to take place prior to the Civil War occurred in 1855 in Dorchester, Mass., where 2,000 persons assembled in a large tent "erected on Meeting House Hill" to dine (Boston Daily Journal, 5 July 1855, 1). Another dinner of comparable size took place in Bladensburg, Md., in 1840 at a Whig Celebration. Some 2,000 persons "sat down at different times" to several long tables. "Refreshments of various kinds were furnished by a confectioner from Washington, and ice creams, soda water, cakes, fruits, etc. were supplied in great abundance" (National Intelligencer, 8 July 1840, 3.)

Large numbers of diners required many tables, which were often placed end to end, probably to better utilize space and to facilitate persons moving about and being served. For example, in Philadelphia in 1814, the Tamanny Society's Wigwam met at Richmond, on the banks of the Delaware River and "sat down to two tables, of 160 feet each in length, well and plentifully supplied with the best products of the season" (Philadelphia Aurora General Advertiser,6 July 1814, 2). In Washington, D.C. in 1831, at a dinner for the Association of Mechanics and Other Working Men, 300 to 400 persons were seated at 3 tables, each 160 feet in length, "with seats on each side, extending throughout the whole line, and were covered with plank, except towards the summit, which was covered with canvass" (Daily National Journal, 6 July 1831, 3). Another large dinner affair at that time took place on the Washington Parade grounds in New York in 1826 on the Fourth's 50th anniversary. Tables were arranged in lines 500 feet in length and "were tastefully decorated with flowers and evergreens. . ." (Richmond Enquirer, 14 July 1826, 4).

Evidence seems to indicate that tickets were generally required to attend dinners. For example, in Charleston, in 1831, the Union and States Rights Party's celebration called for the purchase of tickets for that association's dinner (Charleston Courier, 4 July 1831, 2). In Washington, D.C., in 1815, tickets were required to eat at the "public dinner" held at McKeowin's Hotel, and in 1832 there, at the National Republican Celebration dinner, tickets cost $2 (National Intelligencer, 4 July 1815,2 and 4 July 1832, 3, respectively). In San Francisco, the "Grand dinner" held at the Railroad House on Clay Street cost "only a dollar" (Daily Alta California, 4 July 1855, 2). However, special guests were occasionally invited to eat at no cost. In Charlotte, N.C., in 1826, for example, soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War "were invited to partake 'without money, and without price'" (Charleston Courier, 21 July 1826, 2).

Dinners usually followed the completion of the public and military processions, orations, readings, and other relevant "exercises" of the day. These events would go on for quite a while, often hours, delaying the dinner until mid-afternoon. An examination of numerous newspaper reports show that dinners usually began sometime between the hours of 1 and 4 p.m. It is likely that the feasting lasted a long time, in certain cases hours, given the typically large number of toasts that were scheduled after the "cloth" was removed. It was usual as well to spend some time sharing comments on the food itself and giving appropriate accolades to the cook (s). Occasionally some dinners included additional orations, adding to the length of time spent before the "board." For example, at a dinner held at the La Fayette Hotel in Wilmington, Del., in 1835, "a short, spirited and very able oration, was delivered by Wm. Hemphill Jones, Esq. which drew forth the greatest applause," followed by a discussion of the "excellent qualities" of the dinner itself (Delaware Gazette and American Watchman, 7 July 1835, 2). A reporter for the Providence [Rhode Island] Patriot & Columbian Phenix suggested on July 4, 1828, that public dinners "often" result in "excess, noise, riot and intemperance" and that dinners are not "calculated for social enjoyment." The reporter recommended therefore that Independence Day dinners be "eaten at home with a few friends, without a drop of ardent spirits of any kind, but conclude with a temperate use of unadulterated wine."

Whereas public dinners occasionally allowed for the presence of women, females were typically not invited to society and association dinners. The food for such dinners was usually prepared and served by men only. For example, in New Haven, Conn., in 1834, Col. George Ward provided the dinner for a large assemblage of "republicans" (Columbian Register, 28 June 1834, 3) and in Lancaster, Pa., in 1802, at Good Spring, dinner was served up by Mr. Kindig. (10 July 1802, 3). In Easton, Md., in 1816, a "meeting of gentlemen" took place at Mr. Rue's tavern where they enjoyed a "sumptious dinner" (Republican Star, 9 July 1816, 3).

Occasionly the women were not to be outdone, so they organized their own events. At Northampton, Mass., in 1824, the ladies held a "Tea Party on the Green, presenting a brilliant and enchanting scene" (Boston Evening Gazette,10 July 1824, 2), and at Mossy Spring in Kentucky, in 1819, a group of women "seated themselves on the grass" there and partook of food which they brought from home. An oration was presented (by a Mrs. Mead) followed by an offering of 13 "resolutions," not toasts, for the latter they thought might "be deemed unfeminine" (Commentator, Frankfort, Ky., 30 July 1819, 1-2).

The seriousness with which the people at that time viewed the separation of the sexes as regards their roles played out in a July Fourth celebration is best exemplified by this unusual occurrence that took place in Peterborough, N.H., in 1829. Apparently the men in that town shirked their responsibility in arranging for their usual Fourth of July dinner, so the women took matters into their own hands, causing considerable surprise:

A rare instance of female patriotism took place in Peterborough, N.H. on the 4th inst. As we are informed. The ladies of that flourishing and intelligent borough, gave the gentlemen a dinner. This is somewhat a novel instance; but strikes us as being a mode which is peculiarly well calculated to show the gentlemen how far they have swerved from their duty; and learn them by an example of the kindest hospitality that they are either deficient of courtesy, or of a laudable share of patriotism--or, possibly it might have been done from the purest sympathy for them to cheer and comfort their hearts while they are brooding over the misery which the "searching operation" of the "virtuous President" has brought or is speedily bringing about in the land ("Female Patriotism," Boston Daily Journal, 5 July 1855, 2).

Another similar unusual instance occurred in Baltimore, in 1842, when the ladies of Franklin gave a "dinner party" for the "Cadet Boys" resulting in what "was a very magnificent affair." As reported by a participant, "Those unsophisticated country lasses presented, I do assure you, a most lovely appearance. The dinner they gave us was superb" (New York Herald, 6 July 1842, 2).

Occasionally the women made a brief appearance before the meal began and then quickly "retired" as was the case at a dinner held at Piping Tree in King William County, Va., in 1830 (Richmond Whig, 13 July 1830, 2).

It is interesting to note that receptions held at the White House were generally open to both men and women and the latter were free to partake of the refreshment tables provided by the President. In 1810, for example, President James Madison hosted a wonderful affair which was "opened to a large and brilliant assemblage of both sexes, who partook of the liberal refreshments provided" (Maryland Herald,18 July 1810, 2).

The fare for Fourth of July dinners was characteristically described as "sumptuous" and usually included a number of meats, as well as vegetable and fruit plates (in season) to choose from, followed by tasty desserts that often consisted of large assortments of cakes, pies, and puddings. Barbecued meats, such as beef, pork, and mutton, were popular for both northern and southern palettes. In New York, in 1826, the butchers of Greenwich Market cooked and served "roasted oxen" for the Washington Parade grounds dinner. The food looked very enticing to the hungry participants. The Governor of New York was served first. He

took the first cut of an ox. A crowd of citizens and military then pressed forward, formed a line the whole length of the arbour, and commenced a spirited attack upon the eatables and drinkables, in the most gallant style of epicurean emulation. The attack continued with unabated ardour until the victory was complete, and the whole assailing force, satisfied with their share of booty when they retired in a peaceable and creditable manner at an early hour. . .(Richmond Enquirer,14 July 1826, 4).

A delightful day occurred on July 4, 1821, in Amherst, New Hampshire, when the entire town decided to not have the traditional town ceremony but rather devote the day to catching fish in a nearby pond and cooking up two large pots of fish chowder for all to enjoy (Hillsboro Telegraph,6 July 1821, 3).

In Smithfield, Va., in 1855, it took an entire day prior to the Fourth to prepare for their town's dinner, which called for a wide assortment of meats and baked goods:

Tuesday was a great "preparation day" in Smithfield, for the Democratic jubilee and banner presentation was to take place on Wednesday. Chickens and ducks were decapitated by the hundred [sic]; fat pigs, lambs and calves, were slaughtered by the dozene [sic], and a number of busy cooks were engaged in preparing immense bacon hams, and large joints and sides of fresh meat, as well as untold quantities of pies, puddings and cakes for the long tables that were spread for the numerous guests expected from Norfolk, Portsmouth, and elsewhere on the glorious Fourth (Daily Southern Argus, 7 July 1855, 2).

In Magnolia, Texas, in 1857, in addition to barecued meats, fried fish was also popular. At the dinner there, residents enjoyed "fish, pork, mutton, cabbage, potatoes, bread, pickels [sic], wine, ale, cakes, etc., etc." (Trinity Advocate, 8 July 1857, 2).

Even on the frontier Fourth of July celebration dinners were considered important. Near Fort Laramie in 1849,William Swain, who was on the trail, reports in his diary that

dinner consisted of ham, beans, boiled and baked, biscuits, john cake, apple pie, sweet cake, rice pudding, pickles, vinegar, pepper sauce and mustard, coffee, sugar, and milk. All enjoyed it well (see J.S. Holliday, The World Rushed In. N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1981, 167)

Rather unusual was a reenactment dinner that occurred in Woodbury, Connecticut, in 1859, when ladies and gentlemen dressed in costumes representing the past ate "bean porridge" at the town's dinner "and other primitive dishes, served up in wood and pewter, relics of the olden time,-though there was no lack of good things provided in modern style" ("The Fourth," The Pittsfield Sun, 21 July 1859, 1).

At many public celebrations throughout the country, commercial vendors typically set up booths and tables in order to provide refreshments for citizens as they walked about taking in the various Fourth of July events. In New York, in 1824, for example, booths in Central Park had "baked beans, roast pig and punch, custards and clam soup" (New York Daily Advertiser, 5 July 1824, 2). In Charleston, S.C., in 1844, at the conclusion of the city-wide "Festival of the Teachers and Scholars" parade, a "refreshment table" had "ice lemonade, cakes, [and] fruit" on it (Charleston Mercury, 4 July 1844, 2). There were instances in Charleston when the tables, according to tradition, were "spread with pure white cloths topped with spruce beer, iced cakes, [and] watermelons," and prices for individual selections ranged from 5 to 10 cents (Charleston Courier, 6 July 1861, 1).

A popular cool drink was lemonade or limeade, both made from either fresh fruit, or if available, processed syrup. For example, in Washington City, in 1815, "fresh limes" were available for sale at George Kneller on Pennsylvania Ave. (National Intelligencer, 4 July 1815, 2), and in Frederick, Md., in 1826, W. Fischer had large lemons and lemon syrup for purchase (Frederick-Town Herald, 4 July 1826, 1). In New York in 1854, customers in Central Park were disappointed with the "iced- lemonade, which, sadly deficient in sugar, floated small sliced lemons upon its surface, in dingy brown pails" (New York Times,6 July 1854, 2).

There were certain special foods that were very popular prior to the Civil War. These included clam soup, turtle soup, and ice cream. Clam soup was served in New York and elsewhere, whereas turtle soup was a favorite of Philadelphians, Charlestonians, New Yorkers, and Washingtonians. In New York, in 1828, for example, "Flushing Bay Clam and Turtle soup . . . [was] served up in the usual style, at the Flushing Hotel," while "green turtle soup" was available at the Washington Hall dinner (New-York Enquirer, 4 July 1828, 2-3). In Washington turtle soup was served at two different places: at Lepreux & Kervand's "near the 7 buildings," from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., and at Burckhart & Koemig, at the Columbia Garden, near the Centre Market at 12 noon. Both vendors provided carry out service (National Intelligencer, 3 July 1820, 3 and 4 July 1820, 3, respectively).

Like today, ice cream was a universal favorite treat at Fourth of July celebrations and was made using different flavors from available fresh fruit. For example, in San Francisco, in 1855, citizens were eager to stop by the Union Hotel where M.L. Winn, known as the "Ice Cream Maker Plenipententiary," was sure to please. His ice cream was served with the best pastry and sugarplums. If lines were long, ice cream delights could also be had at Hovey's Ice Cream Saloon, "near the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets." Hovey also advertised "'red ripe strawberries smothered in cream', confectionary and delicacies of all kinds" as another choice (Daily Alta California, 4 July 1855, 2).

In cities along the eastern seaboard, it was not that uncommon for ice cream to be given away free to those who could not afford to buy it. For example, in Charleston, S.C., in 1831, there was a "free distribution of refreshments, a considerable quantity of ice cream," offered to anyone that wanted it (Charleston Courier, 6 July 1831, 2).

As mentioned above, strawberries were very popular in season. In 1856, a Washington, D.C. newspaper recomended a nice recipe for preparing them:

How to Eat Strawberries.--Place as many berries as will form one layer at the bottom of a dish, and sift some fine loafsugar over them; then place another layer, and sift again. When there are five or six layers, cut a fresh lemon and squeeze all over them. Before helping, let them be gently disturbed, that they may have the benefit of the lemon juice and sugar. (Evening Star, 3 July 1856, 1.)

One of the drawbacks of having public dinners and other meals, especially those where the food was left outdoors in the hot weather for a considerable period of time, was the likelihood that people would get sick. The spread of disease, especially cholera, through the sharing of eating utensils and condiments was also of concern. In 1820, in Washington, the editor of the National Intelligencer described in an editorial the danger of public celebrations and suggested that eating in taverns might not be the best thing to do:

There are many objections, indeed, to the usual manner of commemorating the day; and it is hardly a subject of regret that ceremonies have been dispensed with which serve little other purpose than to fatigue those who engage in them, and are, to many the foundations of disease. We yet hope to see some mode devised of honoring the day, which shall not necessarily connect itself with exposure to a boiling sun, nor yet with tavern dinners. (National Intelligencer, 4 July 1820, 3.)
Its difficult to find objection with this editor's comments. Imagine, eating "pickled oysters, chicken salad, ham, lobster, and ham sandwiches" followed by "ice-creams" that might have been left out in the sun too long at the 1846 celebration held in Rock Creek Grove, adjacent to Washington, D.C. (National Intelligencer, 4 July 1846, 3). There were occasions in which public ceremonies were greatly subdued due to the presence of disease, as was the case in New York in 1832 when on July 4th that city experienced one of its worst cholera epidemics. Few dinners were given there that year.

In one event the water drunk on the Fourth posed a lead hazard. In New Boston, NH, on July 4, 1842, there were some 1200 persons in town participating in a parade and other events. At a bower used for a dinner celebration, a “Washington Fountain” was constructed in which it was noted “plenty of cold pure water” was had “by laying lead pipes from a neighboring spring.” Farmers’ Cabinet, 15 July 1842, 3.

[Please note that as the research continues on this topic, additional information will be added. Please be sure to check back occasionally.]

This page last updated July 2011.

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