A Portland parade offered the chance to lighten up back in 1920.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Photograph Collections of Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media
Portland was once an even wilder place than it is today. Certainly when the Parade of Horribles marched past the Second Parish Church on Congress Street, at upper right, back on July 5, 1920, it seemed as if the town had been invaded by oddities.
Take this unusually dressed woman, with her “Votes for Women” pennant, leather gloves, wild hairdo and mask, and even more outrageous dress. Is she a suffragette gone awry, having transformed herself into an ultra-feminine, almost Parisian caricature?
Hardly. She was probably a member of the Forest City’s elite social circles who joined the lighthearted parade to poke some fun at one of the hottest-button topics of the day. A woman’s right to vote and hold office, having been fought over in Maine and elsewhere for more than seventy years, had already passed with the Nineteenth Amendment and was just a month from being ratified nationwide when an unidentified photographer for the Portland Evening Express & Advertiser made this glass-plate negative. The efforts of Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Florence Brooks Whitehouse, of Cape Elizabeth, were finally paying off — but that hardly meant the issue was off-limits for the satirical Horribles. In fact, while these trolley tracks at the intersection of Congress and Franklin streets would see plenty of spectators for the military and historical parades that would follow later in the day as part of the Maine Centennial Parade festivities — note the bunting adorning the building at upper left — the hilarious show put on by the Horribles drew thousands out in their overcoats to fend off the early morning chill.
“The line was a succession of ‘hits,’ with the fire department coming in as a chief source of inspiration,” says Jane Nylander, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, historian who has researched such parades, which are still a part of certain New England holiday celebrations. “They aimed their satirical costumes and skits on local government and whatever was the classic ideas of the day, so at this parade a giant touring Maine potato was a big hit.” Nylander says the first such parade in Maine was held in 1849 in Bangor, though at that point the local performers called themselves “Fantastics.” They later appeared in Augusta, Skowhegan, and Portland and were always manned by local civic leaders, many of whom would have to clean themselves up for the more dignified parades later.
Horrible, fantastic, wonderful. Whatever you call it, there’s something refreshing — and sadly missing today — about Mainers’ ability to laugh at themselves more than ninety years ago.
- By: Joshua F. Moore