Illumination Night in the late 19th century was very different from the laid-back traditions we enjoy today. During the 1870s and ’80s it took the form of an end-of-season blowout party celebrated across the whole of Oak Bluffs, known as the Cottage City Carnival.
The Carnival of Sports began in the afternoon, showcasing foot and bike races around Ocean Park for cash prizes, baseball games, three-legged and sack races, swimming contests (from Lovers Rock to the the Sea View’s pier), tennis matches, and whaleboat races. Professional athletes dove from 70-foot-high platforms, walked tightropes, and performed trick bicycle stunts. In 1887, 3,000 people gathered for a greased pig race on Ocean Avenue.
A highlight of the afternoon was always the half-mile obstacle race around Ocean Park, involving barrels to dive through, a greased pole to climb, a frisky horse to vault, hurdles, tilts, seven-foot fences, low wooden horses to squeeze under, a man to climb over, spiked barrels to navigate, and two ladders set on live horses’ backs to walk over, rung by rung. It was known for its laughs as much as its athletics, but cash prizes were awarded to the winners. Meanwhile, the most popular bands from across the state arrived to play, often simultaneously, at various bandstands and parks across town. In 1880 an opera company performed in the park.
In this era just before electric lights arrived, the Grand Illumination encompassed all of Oak Bluffs at nightfall, as houses across town were hung with as many as 600 Chinese and Japanese lanterns each, scattered throughout gardens and suspended from temporarily erected arches and artificial trees, together with long rows of torches, and candles in every window. Ocean and Circuit avenues were the most brilliantly lit. Intense blue Bengal lights (used for signal flaring) and calcium lights (limelights) added to the intensity of the blaze, punctuated by homemade fireworks. Even yachts offshore were brilliantly decorated with lanterns.
Around 8 pm the grand torchlit procession began: an hour-long parade of brass bands, fire brigades, and decorated carriages making their way through two miles of Oak Bluffs streets, as homeowners ignited fireworks and launched paper “fire balloons.” In 1875 the Boston Globe reported that the parade included “the robed advance guard of His Royal Highness, King Carnival, bearing battle axes,” and noted that “the rest of the procession was made up of maskers in all sorts of characters.” The 1884 parade was remembered for its torchlit parade of tricycles. Bringing up the end of the procession every year was the fireworks wagon, firing Roman candles and discharging flares and colored fires of all kinds as it traveled.
The procession ended at Ocean Park with a professional finale of aerial pyrotechnics: rockets, bombs, “dragon shells,” sparkling jets, tourbillons, parachute rockets, and more, watched by as many as 30,000 spectators, including senators, governors, generals, and even President Grant himself in 1874. An early display of Japanese fireworks by pyrotechnist M. Sato was followed in 1881 by a London artist who launched “a mammoth balloon carrying a powerful magnesium light and discharging fireworks.” The grand finale each year was the discharge of a “set piece” like the one photographed here, typically a 30-foot-high temple or triumphal arch wired with pyrotechnics, accompanied by hundreds of bombs, sky rockets, and Roman candles.
The 1882 Cottage City Carnival —the 15th annual — was little different than the others of this era. The 1882 sports carnival involved a 240-yard dash between “Miss Holmes of Holmes Hole, Miss Quick of Quick’s Hole, and Miss Wood of Wood’s Hole.” The Grand Illumination included a pyramid of fire in Lake Anthony. The procession featured three bands and was followed by the fireworks chariot of Boston pyrotechnic company Masten & Wells. The mood was dampened slightly when the chariot’s wheels crushed a 7-year-old boy named Carter, causing severe internal injuries, and when a horse, spooked by fireworks, inflicted a serious head injury to a woman on Narragansett Avenue, knocking her “insensible.” Undeterred, the festivities continued at Ocean Park with four bands and three hours of heavy rockets and pyrotechnics, culminating in the discharge of the finale set piece, photographed here: “Welcome to Cottage City Carnival 1868-1882.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.