June 10, 2014 --
The Marine Band’s March of the Month for June features John Philip Sousa’s march, “The Washington Post,” which was written 125 years ago this month.
In the late 1800s The Washington Post was just one of four newspapers in the District of Columbia vying for readers. At the time, owner and founder Stilson Hutchins led with stories such as “Do Not Chip the Monument, Otherwise You May be Arrested, as a Frenchman Was Yesterday” and “Dakota for Division: Very Few Persons Want the Territory Admitted as One State.” But in January 1889 Hutchins sold the newspaper to Washington insiders Beriah Wilkins and Frank Hatton. In an effort to boost readership, they created The Washington Post’s Amateur Author Association, which was open to all school-aged children in the city. The Association sought to encourage the study and practice of writing, and membership required that students submit an application through their teachers. Nearly 22,000 kids applied, giving Wilkins and Hatton access to thousands of families—and potential new customers.
In April of that year, the Association then launched a contest which challenged its young members to compose essays that would demonstrate not just how well they could write, but how well they expressed their knowledge of the subjects they were learning in school. The prize, a solid gold medal made by local jeweler M. W. Galt & Co., was prominently displayed in the window of the jewelry store in its satin-lined leather case.
By the deadline, about 1,500 Association members submitted essays. Local teachers helped whittle down the list of contenders. The committee of final judges, which included Frederick Douglass, would announce 11 winners in a gala ceremony on the Smithsonian grounds attended by President Benjamin Harrison, his cabinet, the finalists, and their families. The medals would be awarded by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Samuel F. Miller.
In the meantime, while walking down the street, Hatton ran into a fellow member of the Gridiron Club, John Philip Sousa, Director of the Marine Band. He told Sousa about the contest and award ceremony and asked if he would be willing to compose some music for the occasion. Sousa obliged with a march, which he and the Marine Band premièred at the ceremony on June 15, 1889.
The march’s release coincided with the emergence of a dance called the “two-step,” which was quickly becoming a “dance craze.” The 6/8 time signature of “The Washington Post” march lent itself to the two-step better than anything else at the time. As the dance took off around the world, it took the march with it. According to Sousa scholar Paul Bierley in his book, “The Works of John Philip Sousa,” “When two-steps were danced in Europe, they were called ‘Washington Posts.’ Pirated editions of the music appeared in many foreign countries. [Sousa] delighted in telling how he had heard it in so many different countries, played in so many ways—and often accredited to native composers.”
One hundred and twenty five years later, “The President’s Own” continues to perform “The Washington Post” march regularly in ceremonies and concerts. Although the newspaper still sponsors an annual essay contest, the publishers have made no requests for a new theme song.
Hear “The Washington Post” by John Philip Sousa