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A Dangerous Love Affair with Fireworks


 The explosive 20th century

But how can we blame the kids? Ours is a history of heroism defined by endless wars, cowboys shooting Indians, G-men shooting mobsters, and vice-versa. Turn-of- the-century postcards made the most of the link between little children and fireworks. Colorful holiday images frequently depict smiling kids riding giant rockets or hugging big dynamite-shaped explosives on cards reading "Happy Fourth of July".

Fourth_AdIn 1905 Portsmouth adults set off the largest dynamite explosion then recorded when we blew up a spit of land in the Piscataqua River called Henderson’s Point. The explosion improved navigation and drew thousands of tourists. The Frank Jones Brewery handed out brochures listing where to get the best view of the blast, and where to get the best beer afterwards.

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 reporter notes, should probably not be sold in the stores. But the article is most critical of new-fangled noisemakers that, in the hands of marauding Portsmouth boys, have been keeping decent citizens awake. The kids tied 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 upcoming parades, sailing regattas and Navy Band concerts. There the newspaper ad reads: "BLANK CARTRIDGES, REVOLVERS and COW BELLS for the 4th of July at AP Wendell & Co., 2 Market Street." Business is business, then as now.

100 years ago

Today the city bans all fireworks, including "Class C sparklers" on Fourth of July. But explosions still snap, crackle, and pop from every corner of town. Portsmouth’s love affair with fireworks may have reached its climax on July 4, 1910. One century ago this little-known "Return of the Sons and Daughters" celebration began with an enormous parade at 10 am and concluded with a colossal nighttime display beginning at 8 pm on South Playground. Who needs Imax, 3D movies or HD-TV with a show like this one?

fourth_kidsThe official published guide to the "grand display of fireworks" filled an entire page, listing each thrilling moment in advance. The opening national salute of 13 rifles, city planners promised, would "echo for miles." The display grounds were then illuminated by 25 electric lights "throwing a crimson glow over the entire surroundings." Following the introductory salvo of six heavy exhibition rockets, Portsmouth spectators gasped as a chain of hanging lights suspended by parachutes changed colors while drifting into the distance.

But that was just the beginning. An immense arch of prisms hanging 100 feet in the air produced a dazzling rainbow of effects. Silver rain rockets threw down showers of flame and fire. Immense colored "aerolites" were followed by cannon bombs and explosions in the shape of fiery dragons, sea serpents and glittering birds. Next came the "Italian sunset" -- an effect comprised of rapidly revolving zones of gold emerald and ruby flames.

And on and on it went through mammoth meteor showers, a flaming "daddy long legs," Japanese suns, weeping willow trees, floral clusters, loud detonating twisters, shimmering fountains, an opening fan, fire balls, balloon lights and, at last, the "National Saluting Bombs" of red, white and blue.

At last, with the entire fairground fully illuminated, Portsmouth watched in awe at the sight of two great Corinthian columns hung with angel wings and bathed in light rising into the sky. Suddenly immense letters appeared between the columns that read "Portsmouth Welcomes Her Sons and Daughters." And in a final burst of sound and light the words GOOD NIGHT!

Although the July 5 newspapers raved about the spectacular patriotic display, readers later worried in letters-to-the-editor about the cost of children wounded by toy explosives or found "dead drunk" in the streets after the party ended.


Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is the owner and editor of the history web site and biweekly history coluymn appears here and on the front page of the Portsmouth Herald. He is currently working on two books (one for children) on privateers in the War of 1812 to be published next year.



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