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Freedom, Fireworks and Little Kids


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


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