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Freedom, Fireworks and Little Kids

Fireworks, Freedom and Kids/


Why do we celebrate democracy with violent, noisy explosions in the night sky? Why not celebrate with musical instruments or voting booths or dancing? Because this is American dammit, and if you think fireworks are dangerous, you must be some sort of terrorist.



JUMP: directly to fireworks postcards
READ:  Aldrich Fourth of July

A reader e-mailed me a few years ago asking when the Portsmouth Fourth of July parade would be held. I called City Hall to find out, but the mayor was out and nobody seemed to know. The receptionist instructed me to call the Chamber of Commerce, which I did. They told me to call the City Hall. Eventually we confirmed that the fireworks over Leary Field by South Mill Pond were scheduled as usual -- but no parade.

Bad Boy Tom blows himself Up / SeacoastNH.comHave to have those fireworks, but parades we can live without. American citizens have been known to turn into angry mobs when not allowed to explode their bottle rockets and roman candles on the Fourth of July. We live for the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air. Violent explosions illuminate American history in a tradition as old as the Declaration of Independence.

But what about the parade -- the marching bands, the floats and the flags? I found Fourth of July road races, tag sales, outdoor concerts and open houses, but only one parade that season by the stout-hearted fireman of York, Maine. Strawbery Banke offers a patriotic sing along. Exeter saves up all its Revolutionary gusto for a giant militia encampment and festival later in the month.

Fourth of July, our oldest and most intensely American holiday is changing. It's easy to read too much into the passing of the parade. Maybe Portsmouth volunteers were just too pooped to party that year after their Market Square Day and the opening of Prescott Park. Maybe everyone was out of town, abandoning the Seacoast to the growing tourist hoard.

Ironically Portsmouth ranks high in the history of this holiday. Three New Hampshire men signed the Declaration of Independence, two from the Seacoast. Yet one of them, Dr. Matthew Thornton is better remembered as the name of a healthcare company. Josiah Bartlett, a Kingston doctor, was also an early New Hampshire "president" or governor, yet his name rings more bells as the liberal president played by Martin Sheen in the West Wing series. William Whipple of Portsmouth, whose grave in the North Cemetery was often littered with beer cans, has lately been eclipsed by the new fame of his slave Prince Whipple who gets more Web coverage these days than his former slavemaster.

One of the first public readings of the Declaration, still unsigned at the time, was from the balcony of the Old State House in Market Square on July 18, 1776, just two weeks after its adoption. A year later on July 4, 1777 Captain Thomas Thomson, whose house still stands on Pleasant Street, invited guests to celebrate with dinner aboard a Continental frigate. Ten days afterwards the first Stars and Stripes was adopted on July 14, in the same Congressional decree that sent John Paul Jones to Portsmouth to captain the Ranger. Back in Portsmouth in 1782, Jones threw a July 4th party for the entire city at his own expense with toasts, salutes and dancing aboard the USS AMERICA then being built at Kittery. There were plenty of fireworks, of course.



A history of the Fourth shows attempts all across the country to ban those dangerous explosive toys. They have driven Presidents to duck from an imagined assassin’s gunfire. Fireworks often sent carriage horses into a rampage. And who among us hasn't got a fireworks horror story from grade school to share? I remember a kid in fourth grade who swore he could hold a lit 2-inch "lady finger" while it exploded. He did it with an open balm and we were amazed. Then one day he closed his fist at the critical moment and one of his own fingers found itself at some distance from his body. I wasn't there for the explosion, but when he came to school after the holiday, his finger stayed behind.

Firecracker Safety -- Not /

Kids have lost their hearing. Kids have lost their eyes. My cousin used to shimmy up a tree that hung over the road in front of his house and drop firecrackers into the backs of passing trucks. When the drivers stopped to check on what-sounded-like a blown out tire, he almost fall from the tree stifling his laughter. Then he moved on to frogs. I was there when he popped a lit cherry bomb down the gullet of a poor old toad. For decorum's sake, I'll leave you to imagine the finale.

Victorian author Thomas Bailey Aldrich writes that when he was a bad little boy in Portsmouth before the Civil War, kids were fixated on fireworks. He says:

There was very little hard study done in the Temple Grammar School the week preceding the Fourth of July. For my part, my heart and brain were so full of fire-crackers, Roman candles, rockets, pin-wheels, squibs, and gunpowder in various seductive forms, that I wonder I didn't explode under Mr. Grimshaw's very nose. I couldn't do a sum to save me; I couldn't tell, for love or money, whether Tallahassee was the capital of Tennessee or of Florida; the present and the pluperfect tenses were inextricably mixed in my memory, and I didn't know a verb from an adjective when I met one. This was not alone my condition, but that of every boy in the school."

Tom Bailey's teacher, however, had a devilishly clever solution:

"Mr. Grimshaw considerately made allowances for our temporary distraction, and sought to fix our interest on the lessons by connecting them directly or indirectly with the coming Event. The class in arithmetic, for instance, was requested to state how many boxes of fire-crackers, each box measuring sixteen inches square, could be stored in a room of such and such dimensions. He gave us the Declaration of Independence for a parsing exercise, and in geography confined his questions almost exclusively to localities rendered famous in the Revolutionary War."



Faithful readers will recall that in Aldrich’s novel "The Story of a Bad Boy" the Portsmouth town fathers banned the use of fireworks that very Fourth of July in 1847. In protest, Tom Bailey and his gang of friends set an old stagecoach ablaze in the middle of Market Square. Boys will be boys. Another poor child rowing in from the Isles of Shoals was killed during a later Portsmouth fireworks display, and that was not fiction. Across the country Fourth of July annals are replete with amateur pyrotechnics and children who have accidentally died setting off holiday explosives. One 19th century New Hampshire patriot blew off his left arm while tamping down a canon for a ceremonial volley. The festivities went on as planned. No amount of death and destruction can quench our appetite for things that go bang in the night.

FOurth of July Ad, 1910, Portsmouth, NH/ (click for more) Bad boys, like history, repeat themselves in endlessly predictable cycles. A 1908 cover story in the Portsmouth Daily Herald rambles on about the danger of fireworks capable of blowing a man to pieces. These items, the writer notes, should probably not be sold in the stores. But the paper is more concerned with new-fangled noisemakers that, in the hands of marauding Portsmouth boys, have been keeping decent citizens awake. The kids, it seems, were tying large brass cowbells to strings and sticks to create a hellish Fourth of July racket. Worse, according to the newspaper, was the introduction of blank cartridges for guns of all sizes. The loud repeated explosions were enough to wake the Revolutionary war dead.

But read a little further into the same 1908 newspaper and what do we find? Look right below the notices for the parades, the article about the United States Naval Band, and just across from the story of the Fourth of July sailing regatta and the special holiday races at Rockingham Park. Right there – do you see it now? The newspaper ad reads: "BLANK CARTRIDGES, REVOLVERS and COW BELLS for the 4th of July at AP Wendell & Co., 2 Market Street."

Hmmm. I wonder where those mischievous kids got their noisome supplies? They got them from the same newspaper that condemned their use. Which is to say nothing ever changes in the newspaper biz. Turn-of- the-century color postcards made the most of the link between little children and fireworks. We see kids riding giant rockets or hugging big dynamite-shaped explosives with joyful smiles. It’s not dangerous or loud or violent – just fun. This must have been especially true in Portsmouth where the largest dynamite explosion know to man took place at Henderson's Point in 1905. Ka-boom! We may be losing our parades, but America is still the land where Freedom and fireworks are inseparable.

And it will stay that way until you pry my cold dead fingers from around a fistful of cherry bombs.

Copyright (c) 2006 J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.


Enjoyed your article about fireworks on the Fourth of July. This brought back a lot of memories of those days. My father would buy a peck bag of fireworks for $10 and for one or two days we would have a black (no pun intended). We were living on the corner of Prospect Street and Maplewood Ave in a large apartment house at the time (1936-38). House is still there. My father got the bright idea to fire a skyrocket from Prospect St, over Dennett St into the North Mill Pond. He thought he had the angle right and lit the fuse. Unfortunately the angle wasn’t right and it went through the front room window of a home on Dennet St. A guy was reading a newspaper in the front room and he came charting up the hill to find out who did the deed. None of us knew anything about it. My claim to fame was across Maplewood Ave. was an empty lot (there is a house there now). IN the lot were three beehives. I got the bright idea to put a cheery bomb in one of the beehinves. I sure got a lot of bees very angry. Those were the days when fireworks were legal. A lot of people got hurt or disfigured because of them and it was a good thing that they made them illegal.
Brad Harrington



Patriots, Fireworks, Safety & Children
Turn of the 20th Century American PostCards

Kids love fireworks and American tradition has promoted the image of children toting fireworks, despite the enormous danger. Was this a way of preparing kids for the perils of war or we making too much of these colorful nostalgic images? Turn of the century public celebrations included marauding bands of mischievous boys carrying guns, firing blank pistols and getting drunk. So much for the gentle good ol' days.

Patriotic Postcard with Kids /

Eagle, fireworks and flag /

Boy in sailor suit with flag, canon and fireworks /

Boy in paper military hat with canon and fireworks /

Uncle Sam in fireworks and flame /

boys and girl with giant firecrackers on Fourth of July posctard /



1908 Fourth of July Adverttisements
Newspaper Ads from NH 1908

AD -- Pistols and Blank Cartridges for Fourth of July /

July 4th clothes, revolvers, blank cartridges /



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