Fireworks Without End

In the UK today, we associate fireworks with the fifth of November and (as the well-known nursery rhyme goes…) gunpowder, treason and plot. For many of us, fireworks are inextricably bound up with the smell of bonfire smoke, and standing in a park or sports ground, ankle deep in mud, waiting for the audio system to work. This is often combined with the unfettered glee of riding a fairground ride that appears never to have been safety tested! And of course, we all know and love the various fireworks themselves: the rockets, Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels, Golden Rain and sparklers. Perhaps your personal favourites are those that burst in gold, and then fizz silver? Maybe those that screech and scream? Or those that launch in a splendid spray of red and blue and then ‘phut’ into nothingness? Or the slow burner… refusing to go off until someone has cautiously poked it with a stick, whilst the others watch terrified that it should explode in the face of the poker… Firework night: a time of education and entertainment for all!

Many are unaware that fireworks were around long before Guy Fawkes got himself into a seditious predicament under the Houses of Parliament. Gunpowder, one of the ‘four great inventions’ of ancient China, was a revolutionary creation in the history of warfare (and therefore, the world). Indeed, fireworks in their current dramatic but rather more peaceful form, were not automatically seen as a means of entertainment. Fireworks as weaponry appear again and again in documents from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Gale Primary Sources, though they also appear in historical sources being used for less violent purposes.

For example, fireworks were used to tear down a bridge in Antwerp in 1585:

1. ‘NEWS FROM DIVERS PARTS’,May 8/18 1585. SP101/95 f.28. State Papers Online, Cengage Learning, 2017.

‘Antwerp, 1 May.—So far nothing is done against the bridge, but within a week the ships &c. will be ready in Holland, and here, besides the three already written of, they are making ready ten smaller ones, laden with fireworks, and another which will go under water, full of powder, iron and stones, to wreck the bridge and drive the Malcontents off the dyke’

A few years before this incident, an account of a celebration in Constantinople describes the splendid firework displays at the Hippodrome; ‘fireworks without end’, ‘such a quantity of fireworks that the air seemed to burn on all sides,’ during the festival of the Age of the Janissaries. Among the many fireworks used are mentioned a ‘mountain’, ‘castles’, ‘some models of men on horseback, but full of fireworks’ and a display by ‘two galleys as long as a gondola which fought together with fireworks for more than an hour…[and] gave the people the greatest pleasure’[1]

2. ‘Triumphs and Shows of Grand Turk’, 21 July 1582. SP97/1 f.20, State Papers Online.

With the advent of print culture, firework displays appeared frequently in the pages of newspapers and books, perhaps paralleling an increase in public entertainments and the popularity of such events. In 1730, The Daily Post Boy, a paper in the Nichols Newspaper Collection, lists a mysterious array of fireworks, including the Rainbow, the Rising Sun and the Goddess Iris, among a variety of entertainments.

3. “News.” Daily Post Boy, 12 Feb. 1730. 17th and 18th Century Nichols Newspapers Collection

While they may have become more common, the grandeur and drama of firework displays only grew. The ‘General Peace’ after the War of the Austrian Succession was celebrated in London with a grand fireworks display in October of 1748, and it was reported on in detail.

4. “News.” Whitehall Evening Post [1770], January 21, 1749 – January 24, 1749. 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection
The popularity of fireworks was enough to justify the publication of books of ‘recipes’ for making them, such as ‘Artificial Fireworks, Improved to the Modern Practice’ by Robert Jones in 1776. In that year, it seems anyone could enjoy such delights as ‘Neptune’s Chariot’, ‘Chinese Fire-Ships’ and ‘Thunder in Rooms’, followed perhaps by a ‘Dodecaedron’ and a handful of ‘Ducks’.

5. Jones, Robert. ‘Artificial fireworks, improved to the modern practice’, Printed for J. Millan, near Whitehall, MDCCLXXVI. [1776]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online
6. “Celebration of Prince Albert’s Birthday.” Illustrated London News, 2 Sept. 1843, p. 149+. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003

Firework displays were a frequent and popular part of Victorian entertainments as well – from Prince Albert’s birthday in 1843 in London, to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations in Penang in Malaysia, fireworks were a key part of the running order.

7. “Malaysia 6.” British Colonial Office: Photographic Collection, Primary Source Media, 1898. Nineteenth Century Collections Online

Drawings such as the above, from the Illustrated London News, are the best images we have of fireworks before photography was able to capture them in all their dazzling glory, although even with this new technology some images remained more impressive than others…..

8. Schnauss, Hermann. Photographic Pastimes: A Series of Interesting Experiments for Amateurs for Obtaining Novel and Curious Effects with the Aid of the Camera. Iliffe & Son, 1891. Nineteenth Century Collections Online
9. Firework Display at the Alexandra Palace. Photographer: James Moody Cooke. Records of the Copyright Office of the Stationers’ Company: Photographs, Primary Source Media, 1899 Jan.-Mar. Nineteenth Century Collections Online.

By the end of the nineteenth century, fireworks as a domestic spectacle were being marketed, and the early advertisements in collections such as Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers and The Times Digital Archive can tell us much about who they were aimed at, and the occasions for which they were used. They can also shed some interesting light on attitudes to safety and childhood in the same era.

In the Daily Inter Ocean in Chicago in 1893, children were tempted with the full page spread of ‘Fireworks for Nothing!’, with its headline,

‘Why not be a really-and-truly American boy this year, and EARN YOUR OWN FIREWORKS, eh? Papa’s busy; mamma’s got baby’s summer clothes to make. Just think of the relief to them and the fun you’d have if you earned a big box of fireworks – all your very own – that they knew nothing about!’

10. “Fireworks for Nothing!” Daily Inter Ocean, 23 Apr. 1893, p. 24. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers

After all, what could be better than fireworks in the hands of unsupervised children?!

11. “‘Standard’ Fireworks.” Times, 21 Oct. 1954, p. 3. The Times Digital Archive

[1] “Triumphs and shows of Grand Turk.” Jul. 21 1582. MS Secretaries of State: State Papers Foreign, Turkey, 1579-1779. SP 97/1 f.20. The National Archives of the UK. State Papers Online. Web. 1 Nov. 2017.

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About the Author

I joined Gale, a Cengage Company in 2016 as a Publishing Assistant and subsequently became an Associate Acquisitions Editor for digital archives. With a diverse background in international and transnational history, I'm particularly interested in social narratives and cultural trends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In my spare time, I like stand-up comedy, Agatha Christie and Tetris.