What on earth is a “calithumpian” and what is its relevance in a blog about how Vancouver once was?
An article in the Woodstock (Ontario) Sentinel-Review, had this to say:
According to the Thamesford [Ontario] Calithumpian website, the word Calithumpian is an old English expression that is defined as a spontaneous clown parade or a party held after a public hanging. . .
Celebratory public hangings?² Has this family-oriented blog taken a wrong turn?
Fear not, gentle reader. Read on.
The first press report mentioning Vancouver “calithumpians” seems to have been in an 1890 edition of the Vancouver Daily World. In a detailed account of the 1890 Labor Day events, it was noted that there had been a parade (or “procession”):
An interesting part of the procession, although not prepared by the [planning] committee, was a crowd of calithumpians mounted on fiery charges and fitted up in the most grotesque costumes. Colored men [probably not black men; more likely, white guys in ‘black face’] and clowns were the favored styles of masquerade. They kept good order and seemed to give the spice and variety to the procession. Some of their horses were fitted out with men’s trousers and braces [suspenders, presumably].
8 September 1890 Vancouver Daily World
This clipping is noteworthy here for at least three reasons. First, “calithumpians” is used in this report to refer not to the parade/procession, but to a subset of the participants. Second, these participants were identified as “colored men and clowns…[and] horses fitted out with men’s trousers and braces.” And third, the calithumpians were not ‘official’; their participation wasn’t planned, but seemingly spontaneous.
In 1925, it was announced by the Dominion Day planning group, that the parade associated with the occasion that year, would be calithumpian in nature. It seems that the term had fallen into disuse since the late 19th century, and the author of an article in the Vancouver Sun posed a good question at the outset of his piece:
What is a calithumpian parade? That is the question being asked by thousands of Vancouver citizens following the announcement by the committee in charge of the Dominion Day celebration that such a parade will be one of the great features of the mammoth display proposed for the celebration of Canada’s natal day in Vancouver. Well, one description is that it is a boisterous, noisy and spectacular compilation of entertaining public features, pleasing to the eye. . . [It] resembles the Mardi Gras, which has made New Orleans famous, and will be the first parade of its kind held on the Pacific Coast. It consists of a burlesque of every known animal, prehistoric or existent, birds of the air, fowl of the earth, fish of the sea. Every animal from an elephant to a cat will be represented. Throughout the parade, fifty to seventy-five clowns – amateur and professional – will contribute their antics to the general revelry. Hick bands, colored minstrels, wonderful impersonators of public and private citizens, will also be on the programme.
27 April 1925 Vancouver Sun
The Province (in a piece published 8 June 1925) pointed out that the Dominion Day parade of 1925 would have “floats [that] will be historic, fanciful and funny. . . and will be the most elaborate in design ever attempted in the city. . . [and] the committee has been informed that thousands of visitors will come to the city from the United States for the celebration, and it is expected one of the greatest crowds on record will be on hand. . .”
Post-1925 press mentions of calithumpians referred exclusively to parades (not participants). And these reports nearly always referred to parades that a present-day Vancouver resident would instantly recognize. There would be clowns, floats and marching bands, as opposed to the earlier typical participants – soldiers, horse-drawn wagons, and (in 1890, at least) horses fitted out with men’s trousers!
Another new element of the 1925-and-later parades was that they seemed to be designed to appeal to outsiders as compared with earlier parades which were principally for residents. Perhaps that was the most significant meaning of the 1925-and-later calithumpian parades: they were ‘thumping’ the tourism drum.
¹The corporate slogan of Jantzen for a number of years (displayed on the float) was “The suit that changed bathing to swimming”. For more on Jantzen and its connection to Vancouver, see here.
²The last public execution in B.C. was in 1959 at Oakalla Prison, in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.