The organized displays that professionals fire are just one side of the fireworks business. Equally replete with tradition and nostalgia are the firecrackers, fountains, and bottle rockets that ordinary citizens shoot off in their back yards. These “toy” fireworks, as they are known in the industry, became popular after the Civil War.
“Before then it was popular to shoot guns and cannons to celebrate the Fourth,” says Warren Klofkorn, an author who has written about fireworks history. “The black-powder-based fireworks that were introduced were a less lethal form of revelry than indiscriminate shooting.”
In the early years of this century, children everywhere religiously saved their pennies to invest them in firecrackers at a nickel a pack. Torpedoes, small balls that exploded on impact with a sidewalk, were another popular diversion, along with snakes, doubleheaders, chasers, skyrockets, and pinwheels. Toy cannon and cap pistols were also closely associated with fireworks. Early models used primer caps designed for black-powder guns. They were responsible for decades of blasts and blisters.
On a typical July Fourth youngsters woke before dawn and sneaked outside with Christmas-morning anticipation. Every boy wanted to set off the first Independence Day salute. By the time the sun was up, most towns were alive with the dry crackle of miniature explosions, every one a “death to a redcoat.” The air would be tinged with sulfur until after the town fireworks display at night.
The Chinese have been the traditional suppliers of firecrackers, which continue to be manufactured and braided into strings by hand. The early black-powder “mandarin” firecrackers emitted a rather feeble snap when lit. In 1916 Thomas G. (“Ray”) Hitt, a pyrotechnic innovator from Washington State, experimented with photographic flash powder, a mixture of powdered magnesium or aluminum and an oxidizer. The formula was soon introduced into the Chinese fireworks industry. The resulting “flashlight crackers” exploded with a much sharper report than their black-powder predecessors.
Flash powder also turned domestically made salutes and “cannon crackers” lethal, fueling the antifireworks crusade. “You had cannon crackers up to twelve inches long,” says John Nieminski, a Park Forest, Illinois, letter carrier who moonlights as a dealer in antique fireworks. “They were like bombs. They killed people.” Salutes were eventually limited to five inches.
The attraction of consumer fireworks has not diminished. Recognizing their improved quality and reliability, a number of states have liberalized their laws in recent years. Thirty-two states now allow citizens to purchase fireworks. At stands near state lines, fireworks retailers have long carried on an interstate trade, which is immune from state strictures. This year consumers will set matches to an estimated $250 million worth of pyrotechnics, ranging from simple sparklers to a device evocatively labeled “Wild Imagination.”