Scanning Around with Gene: When Sparks Fly
I suspect every American kid, especially every boy, has vivid memories of Fourth of July fireworks and can, at the mere mention of sparklers, pinwheels, firecrackers, snakes, or roman candles, conjure up the smell of burning sulfur. For me, growing up in a state where fireworks were sold legally for only one week a year, Fourth of July was always the highlight of summer. Every penny and dime I had saved throughout the year went to purchase fireworks, and I had no problem whatsoever watching my hard-won cash go up in smoke. That was the whole point.
Figure 1: Every boy covets fireworks, as shown in this 1941 Russell Lee photograph (top) of the Fourth of July in Vale, Oregon, part of the Farm Security Administration photography series. The bottom photo is a turn-of-the-century view of fireworks for sale in Philadelphia.
Figure 2: This ad for Wildcat fireworks is from 1974 and shows that $12.95 isn't what is used to be.
With names like Red Devil, Wildcat, Freedom, and Phantom, fireworks stands would spring up all over town a few weeks before the Fourth. My buddies and I would ride our bikes to the nearest stand several times a day to see if the merchandise had arrived yet. When it did, we'd drool over the screamers, colorful fountains, and flashing ray guns, and wonder if this would be the year our families would spring for the giant "Block Party" assortment package. We didn't care if they were only the "safe and sane" variety of pyrotechnics. All that mattered was that you could light them and they would flame, spin, smoke, or spew. Even the matches were fun at a certain age, and if all you could afford was a box of 10-cent sparklers, well, you made the best of them. You could measure the number of kids in a neighborhood by the number of black spots on the sidewalk left by growing ashen snakes.
Figure 3: An early postcard image of boys having some fireworks fun. Date unknown.
Figure 4: An 1894 drawing by Daniel Carter Beard (1850-1941) showing the pandemonium of a New York fireworks parade.
And of course, each year it was always a gamble as to who would get hurt or if one of the neighbor's houses would catch on fire from a sparkler thrown into the air or an illegal bottle rocket gone astray. I ended up in the emergency room more than once myself, but it still all seemed very harmless to my young mind. These days fireworks are taken more seriously and restrictions are greater. That's good, I suppose, but I'm sure kids find ways to circumvent the rules now just as we did then.
Figure 5: Firecracker safety was taken pretty lightly in the time of these images from turn-of-the-20th-century postcards, exact dates unknown. Boys will be boys, and sometimes the best way to save them is to kill them!
Figure 6: Two more postcard examples of the fun that could be had by placing firecrackers close to people.
I even had my first moral dilemma around fireworks. I can't remember how old I was, but I had just opened my first savings account and, without my parents' permission (which was not legally necessary but certainly expected), withdrew $3 and spent it on fireworks. As a victim of Catholic schooling I knew, of course, that God had seen my transgression. Eventually the guilt got to be too much, so I admitted my transgression both to my parents and to God through my parish priest. I can't remember how many Hail Marys or Our Fathers I had to say but they were worth it, I'm sure. That $3 bought a number of choice fireworks and even the fear of God didn't minimize the fun of setting them off.
Figure 7: Red Devil firecracker package from 1948 (made in Macau, China), and Big Noise firecrackers (made in New York). Both images are from the terrific web site www.crackerpacks.com, which has a huge collection of vintage firecracker labels.
Figure 8: More postcard images showing fireworks in close proximity to humans. The bottom image is drawn by New York cartoonist Gene Carr, who is considered one of the pioneers of multiple-panel comics. His comic strip Lady Bountiful featured the first woman protagonist in modern cartooning.
A Long-Standing Tradition
Fireworks have long been used to celebrate special occasions and are, by no means, special to Americans. But from the very beginning of our country, they have held a unique place in celebrating the Fourth of July. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said in 1776 that Independence Day "will be the most memorable in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival... it ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade... bonfires and illuminations [the term for fireworks at that time] from one end of this continent to the other from this day forward forevermore."
Figure 9: More postcard images showing America's fascination with fireworks and the close association with the Fourth of July. The bottom card is from printers Gottschaulk and Dreyfuss, which, ironically, was printed in Germany.
Figure 10: These two images are among my favorite, though their origin is unknown. Using flames, firecrackers, sparklers or other incendiary devices as type designs is a common element of early Fourth of July postcard art.
It is only the association with freedom and independence that has allowed consumer fireworks to survive into the present days of our overly safe country. Several states, mostly in the South, still allow year-round sales of fireworks. Even in states like California (that severely limit firework sales), the banning of fireworks is right up there with gun control in triggering heated debates. We don't have a constitutional right to ignite fireworks, but it almost seems that way. This despite the more than 6,000 people each Fourth who end up in the hospital with burns, eye injuries, or other damage, and the millions of dollars in losses caused each year by fires blamed on pyrotechnics. Fireworks don't cause fires, as we all know. People do!
Figure 11: Kids love a parade! Children in Southington, Connecticut, stage a Fourth of July parade in 1942 (top) and bottom right (photos by FSA photographer Fenno Jacobs). Bottom left, a young girl photographed by E. W. Kelley in 1906.
Figure 12: Everyone gets in on the fireworks bandwagon, as shown in these three tantalizing images. "All Up in the Air Over the Fourth of July" (top) is of movie actress Marion Shilling in 1930. The pin-up girl lighting a firecracker (bottom right) is by artist Gil Elvgren, and Bud Fraker photographed Virginia Welles (bottom left) for the movie "Blue Skies" in 1946.
Sadly, more communities are banning fireworks in exchange for publicly funded, professional firework shows. And while these can be spectacular and elicit many ohhhs and ahhhs, they aren't the same as setting off your own. It is, in fact, the possible danger and risk that makes fireworks so much fun.
Figure 13: This poster showing a wide selection of fireworks from British manufacturer Standard is from another great fireworks web site, www.fireworkmuseum.co.uk.
Figure 14: And an ad from Standard, which formed in 1891 and still operating today.
Keep reading "When Sparks Fly."
There is a Dark Side
Of course, anything that burns or explodes shouldn't be taken too lightly, and there are plenty of tragedies associated with the fireworks industry. Fireworks factory explosions are not that uncommon, and when they happen (as they have in the Netherlands, Denmark, and China in recent years) they can be catastrophic, destroying many lives and entire neighborhoods. Even the professionals who put on displays have their share of mishaps: a barge exploding, a rocket going out of control into the crowd, a hand being blown off.
Figure 15: By the time of the Works Progress Administration's famous poster campaign, the idea of injury from firecrackers was not as funny as it had been in Victorian times. Here a poster from artist Vera Bock points out the potential dangers.
Figure 16: These photographs of the Martin Fireworks factory by FSA photographer Theodor Horydczak clearly show that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had not yet been formed.
And each year too many animals are caught in the crossfire, or at least scared out of their minds by the sound of explosions and screaming Piccolo Pete's. We once had an Irish setter who for the first week of July took up residence in a closet, buried under a pile of dirty clothes. The line between mischievous fun and real harm is not one best left to adolescents or drunken adults.
Figure 17: In these two Victorian postcard images, animal welfare was clearly not a priority. Sadly, even today many animals are injured and scared by fireworks.
The invention of fireworks (and especially firecrackers) by the Chinese was prompted not by a desire to celebrate, but rather as a way to ward off evil spirits. So from the very beginning the danger was all part of the process.
Figure 18: The Chinese invented firecrackers and gunpowder and still manufacture most of the world's fireworks. These two firecracker labels are from manufacturers in Macau.
A Chance Beginning
Even before the discovery of gunpowder, the Chinese were burning green bamboo shoots to cause explosions, a result of air pockets trapped inside the bamboo chambers. When gunpowder was eventually discovered (many think by accident), it only upped the ante and made for bigger and bigger explosions. To this day the Chinese are the fireworks masters, though after Marco Polo brought gunpowder back to Europe, Italians raised the art of pyrotechnics to new heights and popularized the idea of fireworks as entertainment.
Figure 19: Several more Chinese firecracker labels. My favorite text is on the top label and advises "Lay on ground. Light fuse. Retire quickly." No kidding.
Soon kings and queens were ordering fireworks displays in attempts to outdo each other in size and spectacle. By the time Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605, fireworks were very popular in England. So it isn't a stretch that Guy Fawkes Day quickly became celebrated by setting off fireworks -- the British equivalent of our Fourth of July obsession. Nearly every country has at least one special occasion when the populace takes to the streets, fireworks in hand.
Figure 20: Pain's Fireworks produced regular fireworks spectacles at Coney Island and Manhattan Beach until the company, beset by liabilities from several deaths and a factory explosion in Britain, became insolvent. The bottom image is packaging for the Mine of Fiery Serpents from Standard Fireworks.
In recent years the popularity of fireworks, especially professional displays, has risen dramatically, thanks to better materials, computer controls, and the opening of free trade with China. In 1996 a new record was set in Hong Kong when a single string of firecrackers was set off that continued exploding for 22 hours.
Figure 21: Some claim that fireworks originated in India, though most scholars agree it was China. Here is a modern India fireworks label from the Standard Company.
Figure 22: Several more examples of modern Indian firework labels focusing on families and especially kids.
I don't know if kids today still see fireworks through the same excited eyes that I did. Video game and movie special effects have dulled the senses a bit. A few years ago when my young nephews were visiting, we bought a box of fireworks that were generally perceived as being "duds" by the kids. Fireworks take place every day at places like Disneyland, and it's not uncommon for small displays to be set off at weddings, corporate events, and other special occasions. When I lived in San Francisco for a few years, it seemed like every other weekend some sort of fireworks display took place over the Bay. So I guess the novelty has worn off a bit.
Figure 23: Flying Wheel firecrackers from Macau.
But each year I still stop in the parking lot of the local market and look at the fireworks selection. Now the products have more clever names, like Wizard of Ahhs, Urban Warrior, Wickedly Awesome, Fortress of Fire, Screamin' Meemie, and Da Bomb. And they seem to cost a lot more, even when you figure in inflation. One Screamin' Meemie costs $119.99, and several single items sell for $149 or more! In my day that would have bought the biggest assortment made, and a large family would have been hard-pressed to set off all of them in one evening.
Figure 24: Bazooka and Jet firecrackers from Macau also advise you to retire quickly after lighting.
Yet I still get a little twinge of excitement when I get close enough to smell the sodium, barium, copper, magnesium, and charcoal that color the sparks and flames as they shoot out of those cardboard tubes and cones. And even though I don't light fireworks anymore, I hope those temporary stands continue to go up every year. It's the American way.
Figure 25: Postcard images emphasizing the inalienable right of Americans to light firecrackers.