"As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of the opportunity provided to serve self-interest when Al Gore created the internet; and we should also thank Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey for creating Facebook and Twitter out of the kindness of their big hearts and not the thinness of their small wallets."
-Ben Franklin, Autobiography (1742)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Founder's Choice Awards

Last night marked the 2012 edition of the People's Choice Awards, yet another televised pageant in what seems to be an endless number of award shows that air throughout the year in the states for everything from movies to video games to probably many other things that don't make it on to the major networks - truly we are a people who take great pride in being proud of our own accomplishments.

As noted historians, people often send us letters asking how we got to this point and why these shows are so popular. We will answer these questions in today's history lesson where we will attempt to explain the origin of the award show in America, starting with an event in 1783 known as the Founder's Choice Awards.

In April of 1783, hostilities between the newly independent United States of America and Great Britain were coming to a close and the story of the The Revolutionary War was being wrapped up for the history books. It was a time of celebration in the former colonies; historians imagine there would have been quite a lot of back-slapping in particular as was made popular as a gesture of goodwill during war time. In the midst of countless parties being thrown all over the east coast, the young Congress decided an official ceremony was in order to honor the men and women who made the Revolutionary War a success. They began compiling a list of names and quickly realized that it would take several days to get through everyone and decided it made more sense to cut the number down and only honor the absolute best from a series of categories. The consensus was that an event like this would last about three hours including speeches from the organizers, honorees, and a musical performance by John Hancock and the Liberty Belles. 

The founder then put their new democratic process through its trials through continuous voting on categories as well as honorees. In the first year of the award show, only Congress voted, but in future years the voting became more interactive and the states were polled by way of a pamphlet published through Benjamin Franklin's print shop (Editor's note: this was also the inspiration for both the famous Gallup public opinion polls and the American census).

After the votes were tallied and preparations made, the 1783 Founder's Choice Awards took place on May 2nd in the Philadelphia town hall building. The now infamous "red carpet" of modern award shows was actually the left over fabric from one of Betsy Ross' unused versions of the national flag. According to historic accounts it was extremely cold and rainy that night and so the material was placed on the ground at the entrance to the hall to keep honorees from stepping in the mud. I guess you could say the tradition "stuck."


In the end, though there were no small amount of lighting blunders (the entire place was lit by candlelight), costume mishaps, and distasteful jokes on the part of a drunk Benjamin Franklin in particular, the show was considered a huge success. Honorees were awarded small busts of George Washington giving a thumbs up sign and there was supposedly an enormous amount of clapping which interestingly enough was at the time NOT a sign of approval but rather the audience's attempt to cover up an honoree's speech that had gone on too long. The "Foundie's were given out annually for the next several decades, evolving over time into what we now call the Tony Awards (the obvious similarity between Founder's Choice and People's Choice is actually pure coincidence).

So there you have it once again - the origin of the modern day award show was actually based on a Revolutionary War era experiment in democracy and celebration. For those interested we have included what we believe is a partial list of the categories and awards that were handed out that first year to give you an idea of just how much (or moreso how little) the modern day award shows have progressed:

Most Creative Art Direction
Benjamin Franklin, "Join or Die" 
Join, or Die by Benjamin Franklin was recycled to encourage the former colonies to unite against British rule

Most Quotable Speech
Rev. John Mayhew, "No taxation without representation" from a Boston sermon
Best Musical Score
Minutemen dressed as British Regulars performing march, Battle of Saratoga

Best Choreography in a Training Program
Baron Fredreich Wilhelm Von Steuben, Valley Forge
Baron Steuben by Peale, 1780.jpg

Best Costume Design
Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau
Rochambeau Versailles.jpg

Best Comedic Performance in a Military Action
Thomas Hardwick, Battle of Concord

Best Kiss
John Francis and Elizabeth Huntinton, After the Battle of Lexington

Best Set Design
John Trumbull, Yorktown

Best General, Best Pose for a Painting
Gen. George Washington, crossing the Delaware

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