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Bombs Bursting In Air 

Fireworks In America

It takes a thesaurus to describe what fireworks can do nowadays. They arc, zoom, twist, and shiver. They whistle, screech, and boom. They assume all kinds of shapes -- stars, hearts, rings, flowers, trees, spiders, you name it. The variety of colors and effects gets wilder every year as the pyrotechnic technology progresses at an, umm, explosive rate.

The Chinese are usually credited with inventing fireworks. The combination of chemicals that produced gunpowder probably was an accident, but it has proven a momentous one. By the mid-16th century, fireworks were an established part of the election of a pope in Europe. And, of course, they've been a part of celebrations in the US since our country was established.

Following the Revolutionary War, veterans celebrated Independence Day by firing their muskets. One of the colonies' main rabble rousers, Declaration of Independence signer and second President John Adams, wrote his wife Abigail that the founding of the new nation "ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations [Colonialese for "fireworks"], from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore." And thus, he prophesied, we would always remember that historic date in 1776 -- the second of July. OK, so he was off a couple of days (Adams was marking the resolution of independence; we celebrate the signing of the Declaration). The precarious new nation's first birthday celebration occurred in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777. Bonfires blazed, bells rang, bands played patriotic music and, yep, fireworks were exploded. For decades, each annual celebration was also punctuated with small arms fire.

In the middle of the 19th century, someone got the bright idea -- and, incredibly, many others liked the idea -- of placing an anvil atop a bag of gunpowder and blowing it sky high. History books don't mention the survival rate of participants, but it's probably significant that this particular form of entertainment has died out.

Cheap firecrackers came to the US from China, shortly after the end of the Civil War. They were mostly noise, and Americans considered them too mild. So, with the pioneer spirit that made this country what it is today, they set to work making firecrackers much more dangerous. Soon the miniature bombs were causing thousands of cases of blindness, lost limbs, and other injuries each year. Public health advocates, and finally the press, demanded the ban of firecrackers. It took awhile, but by the middle of the 20th century, over half the states had made the possession or explosion of firecrackers illegal.

By the 1970s, a nationwide ban seemed imminent. Instead, two formerly opposing forces worked out a compromise. The federal government imposed standards. It banned the highly dangerous cherry bomb and instituted a maximum explosive capability for firecrackers that comes out to about one-30th of the force of cherries. Fireworks manufacturers, determined to preserve their lucrative and popular business, raised their quality-control standards. Better fuses and more stable chemical combinations helped. And so firecrackers began to be popular again.

During the 1990s, the sale of firecrackers almost doubled, but the number of injuries has remained about the same. Not that the number is insignificant. Every year hundreds of people in the US are wounded -- some seriously or even fatally -- by fireworks. But you gotta figure some of these folks would get themselves killed at any kind of party, with or without fireworks, so hey. . .

Luckily for local lovers of colorful explosives, buying fireworks has rarely been a problem. Who do you have to thank for that? Why, it's South Carolina and its long-held culture of not giving a flying damn what the rest of the country thinks. In fact, a mighty roar of grumbling arose from the first state to secede from the Union when the feds got in their face in the 1970s by imposing more restrictive standards. Things soon cooled down, however, when it became apparent that the new safety measures would wind up increasing sales. True, the pitiful orbs called "cherry bombs" today are a far cry from the little red boogers of yesteryear, which could easily take out a rural mailbox (or a hand) with just one blast (note that during the 60s and early 70s, you could buy something called M-80s in South Carolina which were widely rumored to be an eighth of a stick of dynamite -- whatever they were, they made cherry bombs look like firecrackers). To compensate for today's loss of sheer firepower, current fireworks lovers now have access to much more "professional"-looking color displays than in the old high-firepower days.

Heat of the Moment
Intellectuals have come up with a wide array of rationales for the appeal of fireworks, some sensible and some just plain obtuse. Kevin Saltino, a scholar at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, claims that fireworks are about politics, propaganda, sex, sublimity, order over chaos, and intellectual illumination. And, not least, he says, "They are a memento mori -- a reminder of death." However, a child overheard last year may have said it better: "The colors are neat, and I like that big boom."

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