This year marks the 45th anniversary of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. The oldest boomers were 30 at the time, while the youngest were 13, making it the quintessential American holiday celebration for a growing Boomer Generation.
The months leading up to July 4, 1976 were filled with patriotic fervor and anticipation of the main event that would officially mark the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Congress established a single American Revolution Bicentennial Commission in 1966 with the goal of coordinating national events in a single city — suggested as Philadelphia or Boston — under the name of Expo76. By 1973, it became clear that there was not going to be a consensus among the states as to the scope and choices of the suggested celebration. Instead, individual states created their own commissions. The Bicentennial was to be celebrated only one year after the end of the Vietnam war, and two years after Watergate. President Gerald Ford encouraged local celebrations that would highlight a “restoration of American values,” rebirth, nostalgia and a retelling of historical events in an effort to unite a country still divided.
The local approach turned out to be a welcome way for the country to celebrate, as it evoked the celebrations around the newly-minted country in 1776. John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1976, in which he expressed his desire for celebrations of that momentous occasion by saying, “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews [shows], Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Two hundred years later, the country was covered in red, white and blue. Bicentennial Fever infected young and old, and every aspect of daily life. In many areas, city fire hydrants and sign posts were decked out in red stripes, and white stars on blue backgrounds. Individuals painted their mailboxes with flag themes. Clothing for men, women and children reflected the same red, white and blue aesthetic, with stars and stripes aplenty.
The Super Bowl, played on January 18, 1976, served as the unofficial kick-off of a year of celebrations. Players wore an official American Bicentennial logo patch on their uniforms. Halftime entertainment was the wholesome singing and dancing group, “Up with People.” Dancers were dressed as historical American figures, which were portrayed in song in the program.
TV networks got into the patriotic mood in a big way, delivering entertaining and informative depictions of historical lore, legend and myth all through the year. Saturday morning cartoons were also affected. The theme was written into The Archies cartoon storyline, but the ones that most people will recall were from Schoolhouse Rock. Older boomers already had children of their own who watched the educational kids’ show. Most notably, two of the segments created with the Bicentennial theme have become classics in the annals of educational TV: I’m Just a Bill, and The Preamble. One discussed the legislative process, while the other set variations of the preamble of the U.S. Constitution to music.
Massive celebrations on the Fourth that took on a national mantel, like the fireworks display and entertainment show in Washington, DC that night, were televised by the ABC, NBC and CBS networks. During the day, the country was riveted to their TVs unlike any time since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon as tall ships sailed past the Statue of Liberty in New York City harbor. A non-profit group called Operation Sail, Inc., put the international tribute together, with replicas of eighteenth century sailing vessels from 16 countries taking part. Additional smaller ships also joined the parade. Interestingly enough, the organization was established by President John Kennedy in 1961 with the proviso that the non-profit’s events would be subject to approval by Congress. The goal of the organization was to promote cooperation and good will among nations by providing sailing training and celebrating maritime history. It was a spectacular display that captured America’s attention. Mister Boomer recalls watching the ships with his parents on their black & white TV before the family cookout, sailing one by one, into the New York harbor. Each ship flew a banner with the Bicentennial star logo. Months afterward, boomers and their younger siblings had posters of the tall ships in their bedrooms and dorms. Mister B remembers that his family subscribed to Life Magazine. As 1976 became 1977, the magazine’s annual The Year in Pictures was published; among the highlights featured were dramatic images of the tall ships.
Mister Boomer was out of college and working his first job at a small advertising agency at the time. He recalls that the company produced menus, book covers, flyers and ads of all types, and his art director complained that every client wanted red, white and blue. He proclaimed that after the Bicentennial, he wouldn’t use red or blue ink in another project.
In Mister B’s area, there was a local parade of veterans and school bands, and a great fireworks display on a nearby river. The localization of the event made it feel like every person was invested in the celebration. That meant plenty of firecrackers in Mister B’s neighborhood, but they were illegal in his state. The next state was only about 35 miles away down the main highway, and the first fireworks stand was within a mile of the border. Any boomer over the age of eighteen drove to the neighboring state where they could buy Cherry Bombs, Lady Fingers, M-80s, Roman Candles and rockets. Mister B wasn’t a big fan of fireworks, so he never drove down on his own. One year, long before the Bicentennial, though, he did ride with his brother when Brother Boomer purchased a batch for the Fourth of July.
The Bicentennial was a big deal, and though celebrated differently from one area to another, boomers had a front-row seat. What Bicentennial memories do you have, boomers?