Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 21
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: July 1983 Volume 21 Number 3, Pages 85–90
Club Members Remember : Firecrackers on the Fourth of July
In his recollections of The Old Main Line, published in 1922, J. W. Townsend observed, "Fire crackers have dropped from young life, in the evolution of civilization. It is curious how quickly, and completely 'the Fourth' has become 'safe and sane' without any constitutional amendment. It used to be one bangety-bang! bang!! bang!!! from midnight to midnight all over the United States, Boy life is no doubt safer than it was, ... [The first pages of the July 5th newspapers have ceased to be half filled with the destruction of the dwellings and the slaughter of the 'innocents' [caused by the careless use of firecrackers]."
While injuries from firecrackers may have been materially reduced by 1922, as compared with previous years, Townsend's suggestion that firecrackers "have dropped from young life" appears, from the recollections of our club members on the subject, to have been somewhat premature, (And, in fact, some eleven years later a "Quiet 4th Unmarred by Fatal Accidents" was still noteworthy, as indicated by that headline in an article in the Wayne Suburban for July 7, 1933.)
On the next few pages our club members remember "when the Fourth of July meant firecrackers".
Hardly a day goes by that we don't hear some old-timer say this or that isn't what it used to be! In some cases this may be true, and in others it may not - but in the case of the Fourth of July there can be no question. It isn't like it used to be, and legislation prohibiting fireworks is responsible for that.
My first contact with fireworks to celebrate the Fourth goes back to when I was about six years old. I had an Uncle Joe, married to an Aunt Marie. (The names are changed to protect the innocent!) He had to be one of the biggest fireworks buffs ever born! Fortunately for me, Joe and Marie had no children, so Uncle Joe would bring bags of Roman candles, pin wheels, skyrockets, cherry bombs, etc. to our house so he would have a "kid" to justify his excesses. The night fireworks were spread over the nights of July 3d and July 4th, with the cherry bombs, four inchers, etc. spread throughout the day of the Fourth. From Uncle Joe I learned how to hold a Roman candle, set the angle of a skyrocket, and blow up a can with a cherry bomb. It was an education that stood me well during the next ten years or soon the Big Fourth.
For years during that period the Haney family had a picnic on the Fourth on Uncle Harry's farm in southern Chester County. Unfortunately Uncle Joe never made these picnics, but as far as I was concerned, his memory lingered on. There were kids from New Jersey and Maryland as well as from Pennsylvania, but none with my training I got from Uncle Joe. As long as we kept far enough away from the house and out of the barn, I don't recall any adult limitations on our fireworks activities. This meant that we could use the springhouse - and what a noise a cherry bomb made in the confines of that small stone building! The stream running out of the springhouse was also perfect for floating firecrackers on "boats" (small boards) in our attempt to have them explode under a bridge. The displays of the evening were mainly under the control of the adults, but I can remember being an assistant.
In my early 'teens it seems the picnics ceased (possibly the farm was sold), and the Fourth was spent with the local kids and local parade. This was when I became aware of patriotism and the fireworks added meaning. We still made lots of noise from sun-up until long after dark, but it was more of a celebration.
I know there were many injuries and some deaths as a result of unsupervised use of firecrackers, but fortunately no one I ever knew was involved. The only near-tragedy that I can recall is when I took my children to a "supervised" display, only to see the roof of the local high school start to burn from a misguided rocket. We never would have let that happen!
The Fourth has changed. No longer do we hear firecrackers all day, being set off by every boy in town, and no longer do we see the intense patriotic celebration. Could this be more than coincidence? I think so. Watching a fireworks display from a car in the parking lot of a shopping mall is hardly a celebration, even though it is "safe and sane".
Bud and Bella Sprowl
We always purchased miniature red firecrackers, clustered on a string with their fuses interwoven. When one fuse was lighted, it would create a chain reaction, with the firecrackers popping one after the other. Or the firecrackers could be pulled apart and lighted one at a time. These were the most popular firecrackers for children as they were small and had long enough fuses to be lit safely.
The "Block Buster" firecrackers were about four inches long and three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Because of their size, a big brother or our Dad always lit them. To give an additional thrill and make a louder "boom", they were often placed in an empty tin can, which would either split or soar into the air.
The skyrocket was constructed of a long red cardboard cylinder, with a pointed cone top. It was attached to a long stick, which was put in the ground. When the fuse, which came out of the bottom of the cylinder, was lighted, kids always had high hopes that these rockets would zoom into the air, but somehnw they never came up to expectation and too often fizzled down to earth after going up only a few feet.
At night, sparklers were greatly enjoyed. They were larger and lasted longer than those of today.
Also enjoyed at night were the "Roman Candles". They came in different sizes. After the fuse was lighted and the candle thrown into the air, if all went well a shower of delightful sparks cascaded down to earth, ending with a loud "boom".
Many of the older boys celebrated the Fourth by devising their own boom makers from an empty tin can and a little carbide from a miner's lamp, with a little water added. Ignite the gas that formed, and a really loud "boom" was the result. This practice was very prevalent in western Pennsylvania, with that area's many mining towns where the carbide was plentiful. (I fear that recalling this might give some child an idea which could prove disastrous, as this type of explosion could have serious consequences.)
Days before the 4th of July we used to scour around looking for dry fungus on trees and old buildings. We called this fungus "punk". Because it would smolder when lighted it could be used to light our firecrackers. Nailed to a stick, it was a safe way of lighting the more dangerous ones. Commercial punk could also generally be purchased with your firecrackers.
We always had firecrackers on July 4th, and fireworks in the evening. But these were set off by my father; we were just the spectators. As I recall, at that time there were no public displays locally.
As children, my brother and I were not allowed to set off any firecrackers. Our parents were very safety conscious and did not buy them for us, but after dark we watched the neighbors, with their sparklers and rockets, and enjoyed them second-hand, so to speak. A couple of young men across the road always had some kind of bombs and would set them off under an old wash tub or ash can; it made a tremendous noise!
One of our neighbors had a small brass cannon, which he shot off on the Fourth until one year when he overloaded it, and it blew apart.
In the evening the officials of Phoenixville always set off a big display of fireworks at Reservoir Park. Although it was four miles away, we could see them - and hear them if the wind was right. On several occasions we were taken to Willow Grove Park to see the displays there. They were really wonderful, with set pieces like Niagara Falls, Old Glory waving, light houses, and others that fired the imagination.
Also some time in early August [Ascension Day], the Warner Brothers Lime Company set off fireworks displays on the slag dump near the lime quarry, for the benefit of their employees. We would walk through the woods to the top of an old sand quarry along from Diamond Rock, where we would have a "grandstand" seat. The fireworks seemed to be especially popular with the Italian families who worked at the quarry, but the neighbors in the vicinity could enjoy them as well.
I also remember the dreadful fireworks explosion at Devon [see Volume XVI, Number 3 of the Quarter], which I believe took ten lives, one of whom had been a classmate at Tredyffrin Easttown High. Each time I go down that part of Old Lancaster Road I notice that nothing has ever been built on the site of the explosion.
My first recollection of firecrackers on the 4th of July goes back to when we still lived in Upper Darby, before the fall of 1928. While we didn't have firecrackers ourselves - I was about eight or nine and my brother only six or seven - some of the bigger boys had what we called "torpedoes"; oval, red firecrackers, about an inch or so long and a quarter of an inch thick. They were fired by throwing them down onto the sidewalk, or (more daringly) by scraping them along the sidewalk or a brick wall.
The youngsters in that area all had an early healthy respect for explosives. While we lived there, a group of older boys had found some dynamite sticks or caps, used in some construction work on the Red Arrow trolley line that ran along the West Chester Pike.
Five or six of them, as I now recall, were killed or badly maimed in the explosion that resulted from their playing with them. Black crepe was hung on the front door of the homes of the victims, one of them just a few doors up the street on which we lived. It was something we all remembered.
It was after we moved to Malvern that my brother and I had the first firecrackers of our own. We bought them at stands set up on Gay Street, just east of the borough line of West Chester. (I think it was against the law to sell them in the borough, but just before the Fourth you could buy them at several places just over the borough line.) They were mostly small firecrackers and "snake's hats". We also had occasional pinwheels and a few Roman candles, though we never went in for skyrockets, perhaps because they were too expensive to buy from our saved-up allowances. We also always bought punks to light our firecrackers.
One year we were forced to go without firecrackers as punishment for some altercation between my brother and me just before the 4th. To take their place we picked some Bouncing Bet from along the railroad, where it grew in profusion. Smacked against the base of the thumb, the small bulb below the blossom gave a small "pop". "With a little imagination, they sound like firecrackers," my brother plaintively announced - but it really took almost more imagination than we had!
The only minor casualty we ever had from shooting off firecrackers occurred when my brother and I were visiting cousins in Michigan. Somehow my brother neglected to toss a firecracker after he had lighted it and it, of course, went off in his hand. Fortunately his injury was only a slight one, but he was fussed over and quite a "hero" for several hours. Whether our parents ever found out about it or not I don't recall.
After we could no longer buy firecrackers, and had "safe and sane" Independence Days, our principal noisemaker for the occasion was made from an old Crisco can and the valve from an old automobile inner tube. The valve was fastened into the base of the can. Then, with the lid tightly affixed, we would pump air into the can with a bicycle pump until the lid was blown off with a resounding "bang". I'm not sure that the flying can lid wasn't, in fact, more dangerous than any of the firecrackers we ever had!
They were big and black and quiet, as they grew mysteriously out of the pavement. But for a 10-year old girl, they were one of the best parts of the 4th of July. They were ash snakes, which climbed into the air from dark brown three-quarter inch cubes. The fact that we were allowed to ignite them without adult supervision added to their appeal.
We hunched over them, fascinated, far removed from the everyday world of 1928.
This peaceful, witch-like pursuit was frequently marred by horrendous explosions nearby. Each one signified that the teen-age boy-next-door had set off another of his huge torpedoes. How we hated their noise and violence, and our resultant recall to reality.
We usually started our snakey midwifery several days in advance of the Fourth, However, our snake cubes were carefully husbanded and subjected to self-imposed rationing. Who would want to face the "Great Day" with inadequate supplies for a fitting celebration?
Those awful torpedoes also had a way of jolting me out of sleep at any time during the night. They terrified me completely. Much more tolerable were the muffled "booms" from North Tarrytown (N.Y.), about a mile away. Many people of Italian heritage lived there, and could they make skyrockets! Their rockets were intricate works of art. The beautiful starry arcs were not confined to use on July 4th. Births, graduations, weddings, Columbus Day - almost any event also were considered legitimate occasions to set them off. From my bedroom window I could see the night sky dazzling with fiery sparks, and watched them 'til the last one faded. For the Fourth, these midnight shows took place on several nights since the skyrocket creators were as impatient to try out their specialty as we were ours.
For our family celebrations there were pinwheels, nailed by my father to a huge oak tree; sparklers, with which we traced our names in the air; and small Roman candles, which only the grown-ups might light. I still remember the little dull thud, followed by a soft "pschwooosh!" as each bright ball was ejected from the tube. What fun!
Not a single parade did I see on the Fourth of July; not one patriotic speech did I hear. Nevertheless, this annual celebration recalled to us the significance of that first Fourth of July, and we observed it with joy.
Page last updated: 2009-07-29 at 14:31 EST