I was reading a good-natured online debate the other between a couple of people arguing the merits and demerits of American holidays. One of the running threads–indeed, the instigation of the discussion–was the idea of President’s Day itself. Some were averring that the holiday we are observing this weekend is now a second-tier observance, which is tough to argue against. It was not always the case however. President’s Day began as George Washington’s Birthday, and is still legally considered as such in many of the fifty states. Up until around the Second World War however Washington’s Birthday was still considered one of our most prestigious holidays, ranking below Christmas and Easter and on par with the 4th of July. It makes sense that Americans would have two secular holidays–one in winter and the other in summer–of such consequence. From the early days of the Republic through the mass immigration of the early twentieth century these holidays gave Americans a shared narrative. The 4th of July is still part of that narrative, but Washington’s Birthday–or even the more general “President’s Day–not so much.
Here above we see a moment during which Washington’s Birthday was still very much part of our cultural fabric. In 1928 Governor Alfred E. Smith visited Brooklyn to review the organization of retired Kings County firemen. From the steps of Borough Hall he watched the procession of men, some in their 90s, as they hailed the man everyone knew would run for the presidency that coming November. The Eagle, whose offices were adjacent to Borough Hall, noted that “Only the Roman candles and fireworks of the old political campaigning [were] missing.” It was not just Brooklynites; firemen had come from throughout Long Island, Manhattan, and as far away as Philadelphia and Delaware to see and hear Smith.
The governor had been coming to this event throughout the 1920s. He had come down from Albany for a few days to appear at several events; after speaking to and lunching with the retired firemen in Brooklyn, Smith returned to Manhattan and dined at the Brace Memorial Newsboys’ House on William Street. Lodging houses like the one Smith spoke at on Washington’s Birthday 1928 dated back to the days when Charles Loring Brace and Theodore Roosevelt Sr. created them prior to the Civil War. There with Smith at the lodging house was U.S. Congressman Fiorello La Guardia. Smith’s message to the 1,200 assembled hardscrabble lads was to accept that life is difficult even under the best of circumstances. The governor and presidential aspirant understood difficulty, having been born a slum kid on the Lower East Side and toiling in the Fulton Fish Market before becoming a Tammany man and starting his rise.
(images/Brooklyn Daily Eagle)