RetroAnalysis: The Bicentennial


America is really good at marketing. Marketing is really good at exploiting non-commercial special events for commercial purposes. The 1970s were really good at kitsch. So, in 1976 when the United States had a year-long celebration of its 200th birthday, the result was a perfect storm of chest-thumping American triumphalism, Madison Avenue salesmanship, three-cornered hats, and Seventies garishness mixed with genuine, heartfelt patriotism and moments of sincere historical reflection. They called it The Bicentennial.

It’s hard to explain The Bicentennial to somebody who wasn’t around at the time to experience it first-hand. One might say it was an event that offered nationalism, spectacle and general hype on the same scale as an Olympiad tends to within its host country, but without having to endure nonsense like performance-enhancing drug scandals, Bob Costas soliloquies or rhythmic gymnastics.

As happens with the Olympics, marketers glommed onto The Bicentennial with gusto. I could write a long list of the products that had Bicentennial editions and promotional tie-ins, but it’s more fun if I show you:

 

Coca-Cola reminded us of our inalienable right to guzzle carbonated sugar water.

There were any number of special edition Bicentennial cars. When I was growing up, a family friend had such a car (I think it was a ’76 Ford Thunderbird) that featured seat upholstery with a bald eagle and Liberty Bell design motif. The fact that she still drove the car in 1985 made it a little weird.

The Marketing Smart Aleck was pretty dorky at age 8, but still not dorky enough to think carrying this lunchbox to third grade would be anything other than an invitation to a daily ass-kicking at recess.

Collectible 7-Up cans. If you managed to get the whole set, you could arrange them into an Uncle Sam can pyramid. Proof that people were more easily-amused 37 years ago.

Speaking of cans, these Bicentennial beers are great, but the title of Most Seventies-ish Beer of the Seventies still belongs to Billy Beer.

It should go without saying that Disney was all over the opportunity to plaster their characters on limited edition Bicentennial merchandise.

A book for the little kids…

…for the older kids…

…and for the dads.

The visual list could go on and on but you get the idea.

As huge of an event as it was, people don’t seem to talk about The Bicentennial much anymore. However, its legacy does live on in a few enduring cultural artifacts:

  • Fans of the classic sports movie Rocky may recall that the fight against Apollo Creed was a Bicentennial publicity stunt, which is why the bout took place in Philadelphia and why Creed dressed in the flamboyant George Washington costume.
  • Bicentennial coins, especially the quarters, are still in circulation.
  • The popular Schoolhouse Rock video “I’m Just A Bill” was part of a Bicentennial education series along with other history and civics-themed videos.

If this post makes you nostalgic for the Bicentennial or sad that you missed it back in 1976, don’t fret. There’s certain to be something very similar in store for us in just 13 short years. If you doubt that, be aware that planning for The Sestercentennial in 2026 is already underway.

In the meantime, we’ll have to keep ourselves entertained with this…

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3 thoughts on “RetroAnalysis: The Bicentennial

  1. I remember the Coke commercial, the 7up cans School House Rock (which I HAD to buy when it came out on DVD.) Regarding the last video, I wonder if it’s the same artist from Yellow Submarine?

  2. We have the Schoolhouse Rock DVD as well. Ostensibly, we bought it for the kids but the adults in the house seem to have gotten more viewings out of it.

  3. My mother made Bicentennial outfits for our whole family… knee britches and a ruffled shirt for my dad, matching calico dresses for my mom, my sister and I (with matching mobcaps, too). Apparently GRB had a whole big celebration with all the teachers dressed in colonial garb. Even our favorite dolls had dresses that matched our brown calico ones.

    I remember the painted fire hydrants best. I don’t know if it was a national or regional thing, but some municipalities painted fire hydrants to look like soliders… we’d try to spot them on our trips to PA and NJ to visit family. They were still visible for a few years post 1976.

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