It started as an informal promenade in the 1870s, when New York’s most prestigious churches—like St. Patrick’s and St. Thomas, both on Fifth Avenue—began decorating their interiors with beautiful floral displays in honor of Easter.
Churchgoers dressed in their Easter Sunday best would visit different houses of worship to admire the flowers, explains author Leigh Eric Schmidt in Consumer Rites.
By the 1880s, this post-service visiting transformed into a loosely structured parade, with the fashionable and well-to-do strolling in the early afternoon on Easter Sunday up and down Fifth Avenue, from Madison Square to Central Park.
New Yorkers loved the spectacle. “Fashion bursting from its sack-cloth and adorning itself in new and beautiful garments,” the New York Times front page read on April 11, 1887, the day after Easter.
“Everybody and his cousin were on the pavement yesterday. For was it not Eastertide, Fifth Avenue’s brilliant day of days in all the length of the year?”
The Easter Parade was partly a ritual shaking off the chill of winter, but it was also the Gilded Age version of a fashion show, with Fifth Avenue sidewalks as the runways.
“The men were all in sober black save when at times the irreverent dude lit up the street with a gridiron shirt and a sonorous necktie,” the Times continued.
“But the ladies? They were as a flock of butterflies that, for a time locked within the church, had fluttered outward far and wide to try the Springtime sunlight on their glittery wings.” (You have to love that 19th century journalistic style.)
The crowds moved at a crawl all afternoon, dissipating as the temperature rose only to swell again in later in the day as the sun began to set, the Times reported.
“[As] the crowd reappeared, and hour after hour, the well dressed, motley pilgrims from all the wealthy quarters of a great city sauntered slowly along, from Delmonico’s to the Park . . .”
“[And] when night fell tailor and milliner had no cause to complain that full publicity had not been given to the long-studied creations of their fruitful hands.”
New York actually still has an official Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, and it’s open to everyone, not just the upper crust.
But it doesn’t command the attention it did until the 1940s and 1950s, when the tradition was mostly replaced—by real spring fashion shows, egg hunts, and the beloved New York tradition of long Sunday brunch.
The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the humble beginnings of New York’s favorite holidays.
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