Playing With Fire

APHALANX of agencies oversea the industry today, and the result can be maddening, especially for the smaller firms.

“We had a DOT inspector show up once,” Bradford tells me. “Because of a printing error by our box company, this guy was going to fine us two thousand dollars per box if we had used any.” Professionals also complain about the five-million-dollar insurance coverage required for all vehicles carrying fireworks and the voluminous paper-work burden.

At the PGI I talked to a fireworks manufacturer named Cameron Starr, a tall man from the Dakotas who’s a kind of industry Billy Graham. In 1993 Starr founded the National Fireworks Association, to give fireworks people a unified voice—a formidable challenge in a fiercely competitive industry that includes hundreds of retailers and display companies that operate only a few weeks each year. “We are not against regulations to make things safe,” says Starr, who in 1947, as an eleven-year-old entrepreneur, started a roadside fireworks stand. “We’re against the ridiculous rules and the nitpicking.”

The display industry has an excellent safety record. Professionals hardly need government reminders to operate safely; insurance costs already eat up at least 20 percent of most companies’ gross revenues. “People in the fireworks industry regulate themselves,” Starr points out, “because they know they will die if they don’t.”

Punctuating the regulatory debate have been the occasional horrific fireworks accidents. In 1902 William Randolph Hearst, who had just been elected to Congress from New York City in a walkaway, arranged for a massive fireworks display in Madison Square to celebrate the victory and to build momentum for a presidential bid. The show was poorly planned. A mortar tipped over; the stack of ten thousand shells waiting to go up caught fire, and the ensuing explosion killed seventeen people, injured one hundred, and blew out doors and windows on the square.

The use of fireworks by private citizens has also been a frequent target of legislation. During the nineteenth century serious carnage began to accompany the Fourth of July rite. At a time when infections, especially tetanus, could be lethal, injuries from even small fireworks constituted a serious threat. As early as the 1880 the press was lambasting “firecracker and torpedo patriotism.”

Public guardians soon began to impose restrictions. Cleveland passed the first citywide ban on consumer fireworks in 1908. During the Depression, Michigan took the lead in enacting statewide restrictions. By the early 1950s, twenty-eight states had adopted legislation banning all consumer fireworks, with fourteen others enforcing serious restrictions. A loophole that allowed mischievous children to order fireworks by mail was closed in 1954.

The federal government outlawed cherry bombs and ashcans, or M-80s, in 1966. In the mid-1970s the Consumer Product Safety Commission proposed a ban on all firecrackers. Partly moved by protests from Chinese-Americans, who use firecrackers in religious and cultural celebrations, the commission relented. In a compromise, it limited firecrackers to a finger-stinging fifty milligrams of flash powder; a typical cherry bomb contains about thirty times as much.

Pyro proponents try to shift the blame to negligent parents who let their children set off fireworks unsupervised. They also note that many injuries are caused not by legal fireworks but by bootleg M-80s and other illicit devices. The pro-fireworks faction has always resisted an Independence Day marked only by parades and church bells. Substitute “kindergarten mother-play” for the martial spirit of rockets and salutes, a popular magazine warned in 1904, and “see how the tea will go overboard.”

The fact is, of course, that danger is an integral part of the fascination with fireworks. Fire awakens a primordial fear and enchantment. When the low break of a shell at a display sends flaming stars sailing toward the crowd, the cry is not of consternation but of delight; the show takes on extra brio. And in spite of bureaucratic handwringing, the popularity of fireworks has burgeoned since the 1976 Bicentennial. The reopening of trade with China a few years earlier had given the industry a boost with a surge of innovative and inexpensive fireworks.

Aerial shells form the mainstay of modern fireworks shows. And the pace of shows has accelerated. What once might have been a forty-five-minute display is now packed into twenty relentless minutes. As late as the 1960s spectators watched leisurely shows that combined shells with imaginative setpieces: Niagara Falls, a tank battle, a chariot race. Partly because of safety rules that push viewers farther back, set pieces are less common now. Even the fiery American flag at the end is be coming a rarity.