America beautiful at her bicentennial

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, July 4, 2013

     My wardrobe essential that summer – a red-and-white striped seersucker number with navy buttons down the front – is symbolic of an unusual era of fashion statements.

     During the Bicentennial of 1976, even sober-faced bankers in my small hometown donned flag-emblazoned ties and Stature of Liberty socks.

     For many, it was a Fourth of July bash that lasted nearly two years. I was 10, so my recall is limited to the big stuff, like hoarding Bicentennial quarters. I also managed to catch Philadelphia’s televised fireworks extravaganza. The view was perfect from my spot on the floor of our sunken den (sunken dens were a big deal in the ’70s).

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

     I do remember it seemed as if the whole country was in birthday party mode. Restaurants advertised Spirit of ’76 combos, states offered special commemorative license plates, Cokes came in limited-time-only packaging.

     Local libraries called quilters to a collective effort. New 13-cent stamps, bearing images of battles like Bunker Hill, were issued. Fire hydrants and ice cream alike wore red, white, and blue with pride.

     And there’s a generation who owes part of their high school credits to CBS. Their wildly popular “Bicentennial Minutes,” featuring celebrity narrators like Charleton Heston, President Ford, and Leonard “Spock” Nimoy, taught more in 60 seconds than a semester of American History.

     I time-warped today watching one of these vintage segments on youtube. It featured Jessica Tandy describing the demise of our Liberty Tree.

     “For 10 years Boston citizens met there to denounce British tyranny (dramatic pause). Then the British came with axes to chop their living (she accents the “l”) symbol down.”

     The actress raises her eyebrows somewhat, and her chin, then proceeds to tell of a 14-cord yield of wood.

     “But one Red Coat, hacking away at a high branch, slipped and fell to his death. The Liberty Tree died, but not (she shakes her head proudly) without a struggle. I’m Jessica Tandy, and that’s the way it was.”

     Imagine that. A time when Hollywood was actually concerned with how it was, rather than how it should be rewritten.

     Another Bicentennial brainchild was the American Freedom Train, a 26-car museum in motion. During its tour of the United States, more than seven million ticket holders rode airport-style conveyors through cases containing everything from George Washington’s copy of the Constitution to lunar rock. 

     My husband’s only memory from his climb aboard in Jackson is the Liberty Bell.

     Organizer Ruth Dukkony said that at its first stop at Wilmington, Del., the line of those waiting to step into the past stretched three miles long. Too bad it missed my side of the tracks. I would love to have seen Dorothy’s ruby red slippers.

     Up North, a majestic flotilla of foreign ships sailed down the Hudson, parade-style, on July 4, 1976. Ironically, vessels like Romania’s Mircea and the USSR’s Kruzenstern came to celebrate our democracy in a time of cold war.

     Even England’s Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip decided to make a Bicentennial visit. Wouldn’t defeated King George have thought that a bit too conciliatory?  

     Of course, in 1976 our nation was still reeling from assassinations and another war and something called Watergate, but a 10-year-old like me didn’t understand all that. I only knew I was part of a unique time in history, an era when patriotism was definitely in style.

     That’s why I wore my Bicentennial dress, normally reserved for Sundays, any time I could.

     You can share your memories of the Bicentennial by emailing Kim Henderson at