25 vintage photos of the Fourth of July show how Americans have celebrated over the past century

25 vintage photos of the Fourth of July show how Americans have celebrated over the past century
·9 min read
Water skiing performers on July 4, 1955.
Water-skiing performers on July 4, 1955. Bettmann/Getty Images
  • July 4 marks the day the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted by the Continental Congress.

  • It has been celebrated since 1777 and has been a paid federal holiday since 1941.

  • Today, the US celebrates with barbecues, fireworks, parades, and concerts.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

A young girl wore a patriotic outfit for July 4 celebrations in Washington, DC, in 1916.

A young girl holds up an American flag in Washington, DC, during the July 4th celebrations in 1916.
Celebrations in Washington, DC, in 1916. GHI/Universal History Archive via Getty Images

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, a document stating that the 13 colonies would no longer be tied to Britain.

The Fourth of July has been celebrated since 1777 — although it has only been a paid federal holiday in the United States since 1941.

It's important to note that though the Fourth of July commemorates the day freedom was achieved for white Americans, Black Americans were not freed from slavery until nearly a century later.

It's not just children who played dress-up. In this photo, two women showed off their costumes at a celebration in 1919.

Women are dressed up in Washington, DC, on July 4, 1919, including a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty.
Women dressed up in Washington, DC, July 4, 1919. GHI/Universal History Archive via Getty Images

Many people, including celebrities, have dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. Though the statue was actually a gift from the French, it remains a symbol of American freedom. Millions of immigrants passed the towering statue on their way to Ellis Island, in hope of a new start in the United States.

Music and parades have long been features of Fourth of July celebrations. In 1922, three boys played instruments while dressed in Colonial-era clothing.

Three boys carry instruments while dressed in colonial clothing to celebrate July 4, circa 1922.
A Fourth of July celebration, circa 1922. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The nation's oldest Fourth of July parade takes place in Bristol, Rhode Island, each year — the first celebration was in 1785.

People gathered beneath a large American flag in the street to celebrate Fourth of July in St Helena Island, South Carolina, in 1939.

People gather in the street to celebrate July 4 in St Helena Island, South Carolina, in 1939.
St. Helena Island, South Carolina, on July 4, 1939. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

They gathered near a Texaco filling station.

Tug-of-war games have been a popular holiday pastime, as seen in this 1941 photo taken in Vale, Oregon.

Boys playing tug of war in Vale, Oregon, July 4, 1941.
Boys playing tug of war in Vale, Oregon, July 4, 1941. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Every year in California, the towns of Stitson and Bolinas have a Fourth of July tug-of-war battle over the channel that separates the two towns.

It's not only an exhilarating and exhausting day for competitors and performers - spectators need a nap, too.

A couple takes a nap on the ground following a July 4 parade in Oregon in 1941.
A couple naps after a July 4 parade in Oregon in 1941. Corbis via Getty Images

A couple takes a nap under a tree following the celebrations in Vale, Oregon, in 1941.

Crowning the Queen of Candles has been an Independence Day tradition in Lititz, Pennsylvania, since 1942.

The Queen of Candles and her maids, July 4, 1955.
The Queen of Candles and her maids, July 4, 1955. Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

According to Lititz Women's Club, "The idea of Crowning of the Queen of Candles was the suggestion of Omar K. Bushong, a member of the Committee. Mr. Bushong, assisted by Miss Mary Augusta Huebener and several others, worked out the plans for this colorful, pomp-filled spectacle that was indeed a particularly fitting prelude to the lighting of the candles."

Another tradition in Lititz is the baby parade. This boy took part in 1955.

A boy stands on a miniature float at the baby parade in Lititz Park, Pennsylvania, in 1955.
A baby parade in Pennsylvania in 1955. Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

At this year's baby parade on July 3, the top three mini floats will take home prizes. It will be the park's 204th Fourth of July celebration.

Also that year, these women performed at Cypress Gardens, Florida's first amusement park, on July 4.

Water skiing performers on July 4, 1955.
Water skiing performers on July 4, 1955. Bettmann/Getty Images

Cypress Gardens opened in 1936 and remained in business until 2009. According to The Detailed History, it was dubbed "the waterski capital of the world" as more than 50 world records were broken on its grounds.

Meanwhile, Fourth of July celebrations looked a bit different in Alaska, where these children wore heavy coats.

Alaskan children on July 4, 1955.
Alaskan children on July 4, 1955. Herbert/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Alaska became a state in 1959.

In the Arctic and Far North regions of Alaska, the average high temperature in July is just 45-degrees Fahrenheit.

Though jazz music isn't normally associated with the Fourth of July, there are some jazz songs that commemorate the holiday.

Jazz musicians tour Newport, Rhode Island, July 4, 1959.
Jazz musicians tour Newport, Rhode Island, July 4, 1959. Bettmann/Getty Images

According to NPR, "Jazz recordings of American patriotic songs aren't abundant. Perhaps because many of jazz's foremost creators were Black Americans who lived in a society which actively discriminated against them, many didn't think to tackle that material."

However, NPR cites some jazz songs, like "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" by Jimmy Smith, and "Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town" by Billie Holiday, as ones that commemorate the holiday.

Pageants are another Independence Day tradition. In this photo, a newly crowned Miss Wantagh, Long Island, receives her trophy in 1961.

Lorraine Dainiotti, Miss Wantagh, Long Island, July 4, 1961.
Lorraine Dainiotti, Miss Wantagh, Long Island, July 4, 1961. Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

According to the Miss Wantagh site, "The Miss Wantagh pageant is not about beauty (at least not from the outside). Miss Wantagh is about a teen representative with a desire to better her community and be a voice of her peers."

Parades are a staple of classic Fourth of July celebrations and have been happening since the first holiday.

A parade in Wantagh, Long Island, July 4, 1961.
A parade on July 4, 1961. Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Pictured, a parade in Wantagh, Long Island, in 1961.

Marching bands are a mainstay at most July 4 parades, too. This one took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1964.

Spectators watch the Sauk County circus band in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 4, 1964.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on July 4, 1964. John Loengard/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

The Sauk County circus band shared their music with spectators in Milwaukee.

The Boy Scouts of America often perform in Fourth of July parades, as seen in the 1970 shot below.

Boy Scouts of America carrying American flags, July 4, 1970.
Boy Scouts of America carrying American flags, July 4, 1970. Alan Raia/Newsday RM via Getty Images

According to Scouting Wire, "A time for appreciating our nation's freedom, Independence Day is a special holiday for Scouts and Scouters to commemorate America's adoption of the Declaration of Independence. And as citizens of this great nation, Scouts learn the importance of honoring the significant day."

The Fourth of July in Washington, DC, in 1970 saw a different kind of celebration, full of protesters against the Vietnam War.

Protestors in the Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC, July 4,1970.
Protestors in the Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC, July 4, 1970. David Fenton/Getty Images

On July 4, 1970, President Nixon held an "Honor America Day" in Washington, DC. However, according to History.com, rather than a day of unity, as Nixon had advertised it, the day ended with anti-War protesters lighting joints, waving Viet Cong flags, and some stripping down naked.

On July 4, 1985, plane hijacking survivor, Kurt Carlson, waved to the crowd.

Kurt Carlson waving to the crowd, July 4, 1985.
Kurt Carlson waving to the crowd, July 4, 1985. William Franklin Mcmahon/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Former Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Carlson, from Rockford, Illinois, was on Trans World Airlines Flight 847 from Cairo to San Diego when it was hijacked in 1985. Carlson told the LA Times how he was severely beaten by the hijackers and feared for his life. Fortunately, he survived. He attended the Fourth of July parade in his home city that same year, pictured above.

Fireworks are the culminating event of most Independence Day celebrations, like the ones below in 1986.

Fourth of July fireworks over the Statue of Liberty in 1986.
Fourth of July fireworks over the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Billy Hustace/Getty Images

According to Smithsonian, the first fireworks were one color: orange. They were far less elaborate than today's displays. Modern fireworks were invented in 1830, after Italian inventors added elements like strontium or barium.

Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest has been a Fourth of July tradition since the first recorded contest in 1972.

Contestants at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island, July 4, 1987.
Contestants at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island, July 4, 1987. Walter Leporati/Getty Images

Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest will be held in front of a live audience again this year. Last year, due to the pandemic, only members of the media were allowed to attend.

Surprisingly, there's no official recorded reason for why the American flag is red, white, and blue.

Kids riding bicycles at an Independence Day Parade, July 4, 1989.
Kids riding bicycles at an Independence Day Parade, July 4, 1989. Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to AARP, the closest explanation for the flag's colors comes from Charles Thompson, secretary of the Continental Congress, who helped design the flag. In a report to Congress on June 20, 1782, he wrote, "White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valor and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice."

Antique car shows are another Fourth of July tradition held across the United States.

An antique convercigle in a July Fourth parade, Pacific Palisades, California, 1989.
An antique convertible in a July Fourth parade, Pacific Palisades, California, 1989. Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

For example, Bainbridge Island in Washington holds the Antique, Classic and Special Interest Car Show each year on July 4.

Plenty of people will remember taking part in potato-sack races on July 4, like the children pictured below in 1991.

Children in a potato sack race, in East Shore, Maryland, July 4, 1991.
Children in a potato sack race in East Shore, Maryland, July 4, 1991. Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to a 1943 report by the Delaware Coast News, even during wartime, children were still having fun with potato-sack racing. The events on that Fourth of July included, a "bag race, three-legged race, pie eating contest … greasy pole climbing and possibly the potato and egg race, and many other contests that the young and old have enjoyed years ago."

Pictured in Rock Hall, Maryland, in 1991, senior citizens participate in a Fourth of July parade.

Rock Hall Senior Citizens, Maryland, July 4, 1991.
Rock Hall Senior Citizens, Maryland, July 4, 1991. Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

They wore red, white, and blue, and waved flags as they walked through the streets.

Patriotic Fourth of July concerts have also been popular events in the past.

George Clinton (left) playing with Bootsy Collins on July 4, 1996.
George Clinton (left) playing with Bootsy Collins on July 4, 1996. Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

On July 4, 1996, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins performed on Central Park's SummerStage.

Cruises and boat parties have been popular in Boston's Esplanade, pictured below in 1996.

Concertgoes near the Esplanade in Boston, July 4, 1996.
A celebration in the Esplanade in Boston, July 4, 1996. Mark Wilson/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Boston was the site of the famous Boston Tea Party, a political protest in which American colonists dumped 342 boxes of tea into the into the harbor.

According to History.com, "The event was the first major act of defiance to British rule over the colonists. It showed Great Britain that Americans wouldn't take taxation and tyranny sitting down, and rallied American patriots across the 13 colonies to fight for independence."

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