History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 July 2007

Things that go BOOM in the night: the History of Fireworks.

Since my turn to post falls on the Fourth of July, what discussion could be more appropriate to the event than the history of fireworks?

West meets East when it comes to the use of fireworks for celebrations, a tradition that has existed for the at least the last millennium.

The history of fireworks can be traced to China’s Han Dynasty (~200 B.C.). Lengths of green bamboo, which someone may have one evening tossed onto a fire when dry fuel ran short, after a while, unexpectedly exploded. When heated, the air inside of the hollow reeds expands, and eventually bursts through the side with a bam!

This new and terrible noise frightened human and animal alike, leading to the conclusion that if living creatures could be so terrified by the bang, then the noise was probably powerful enough to scare away spirits. Their particular nemesis was an evil spirit called Nian, who they believed to eat crops and people. It became the custom to throw green bamboo onto a fire during the Lunar New Year in order to scare Nian and other spirits far way, thus ensuring happiness and prosperity in the coming year. For the next millennium, the Chinese would celebrate other festivals and special occasions such as weddings, births, and coronations, with the pao chuk or “bursting bamboo.”

Centuries later, sometime during the Sui and Tang dynasties (~600-900 A.D.), alchemists experimenting with sulfurous mixtures, produced a hot, bright flame, which they called huo yao, or the “fire chemical.” By filling the bamboo tubes with the “fire chemical,” a much greater explosion was produced—and bang—the firecracker was born.

The Italians became fascinated with fireworks when the explorer Marco Polo brought back firecrackers from the Orient in 1292. During the Renaissance the Italians began to develop fireworks into an art form that was continually reinventing itself. Powdered metals and charcoal were added to rockets, which, when they exploded, created bursts of gold and silver sparks in the sky.

A slower-burning gunpowder mix could be put in an open-ended tube, which would give off sparks when lit. Elaborate contraptions were built which, when ignited would resemble spinning wheels, torches, or fountains of colored light. Artisans rigged explosives to sculpted frameworks or set pieces representing palaces or other recognizable shapes. One popular fireworks display was the dragon, a massive papier mache monster that would seem to breathe fire as the fireworks erupted from its jaws.
Monarchs, who could display their power by seeming to tame the elements, impressed their subjects with lavish and costly fireworks displays at weddings and coronation ceremonies. Elizabeth I was such a tremendous fan of fireworks for celebrations that she created the post of Fire Master of England. Her successor, James I, also enamored of the rockets’ red glare, knighted his Fire Master.

Royal fireworks display on the Thames, 1749

During the first half of the 18th century, the discovery of “quick match”—a fast-burning fuse made by putting a regular fuse into a small, continuous paper tube—enabled fire masters to ignite many fireworks simultaneously, and around the 1730s fireworks shows in England evolved from spectacles of royal pomp and privilege into public entertainments, including lavish displays on Guy Fawkes day each November 5 to celebrate [the foiling of] the famous Gunpowder Plot.

Fireworks were brought to the New World in the 17th century, where European settlers used them to celebrate special occasions and to impress or scare off Native Americans. The first time fireworks were ignited to celebrate Independence Day was the one-year anniversary of the 4th of July in 1777. Although the Revolutionary War raged on, the pageantry that lit up the night sky inspired the new Americans with patriotic zeal. And in 1789, when George Washington took office as the first President, a fireworks display was a centerpiece of the celebrations.

In the 19th century, when trade relations were established between the U.S. and China Chinese firecrackers became a major import in America, and to this day, China remains the largest manufacturer and exporter of fireworks in the world.

And the Italians remain masters of the craft—Macy*s famous Fourth of July celebration on New York City’s East River is brought to American audiences each year courtesy of the Grucci family.

Macy*s annual 4th of July fireworks display over NYC's East River

So, here's one instance where editors, critique partners, and readers have no cause to complain that your fireworks aren't "period" unless you've set your novel well before the birth of J.C. (Julius Caesar). Have you included scenes with fireworks displays in your historical novels?

Happy Independence Day, everyone!


Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Invention by accident -- one of my favorite categories. Thanks Amanda.

I don't think I have used fireworks (yet) though they had a display at the dedication of the Waterloo Bridge -- while the family stayed for the show my h&h used the occasion to have some time alone back home.

The most fabulous display I ever saw was in New York City for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus trip to the Americas. One element was a cascade of white from the Brooklyn Bridge -- it lasted a minute and looked like a magic waterfall. We were in a boat (not too close) so we had the perfect vantage point.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm grumpy today. Stupid neighbors + illegal fireworks + beer + dog who freaks out = No sleep.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

But thanks, Kalen, for fixing all that dead space that showed up at the end of the post!

9:21 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Amanda! ---Firemaster of England. How cool---seems like that's a book title "The Firemaster." ;-)

Happy fourth!

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! I've never used a fireworks display in a book, though I've often thought it would be fun. My mom and I did use the illuminations to celebrate the British vicotry at Vittoria in one of our Regenices, "A Touch of Scandal".

10:30 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love Kathrynn's idea of "The Firemaster" as a title. I can just see it ... an Elizabethan-era murder mystery.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Amanda, a great post as usual. Loved the Chinese history part of it and how it came to Europe.

Has anyone seen the Chinese movie "Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker"? Painful, haunting, beautiful...

Other than Vauxhall, very few Regency-set historicals talk about home-grown fireworks. Tracy, I'm going to look up your book.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I used a fireworks display in The Bookseller's Daughter -- offstage, sort of as a joke, since there were more than enough personal fireworks going off.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Atherley said...

A fun, informative post, Amanda! LOL, as soon as I opened the page, there was a big boom from the fireworks display in the neighboring town!

Mary, I remember the fireworks celebrating the 100th birthday of the Statue of Libery in '86. We watched them from the roof of my building in Gramercy Park. The display was launched from barges in the East and Hudson rivers and at points in the water at the southern tip of Manhattan. The view would have been perfect had it not been obstructed by the World Trade Center. "If only those towers weren't there," I remember thinking.

What's that saying--Be careful what you wish for? Now the towers are gone, I no longer live in Manhattan, and I couldn't care less about fireworks over the city! (On a happier note, fireworks figure in my Regency WIP, "The Domino Effect.")

Brava for that "Firemaster" title, Kathrynn! I'd gladly rush online to pre-order!

How sad about your clueless neighbors, Kalen! With a little luck, they've fallen into a stupor somewhere and won't harass you tonight!

5:38 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Pam, I should've said, other than your book, of course!

8:03 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Kalen, btw, people complained about fireworks even in 1840.

In a letter written from D.C., Chevalier de Bacourt, France's Minister-Plenipotentiary, said, "Today is a great national holiday. It is celebrated in every part of America, if not with suitable plendor at least with prodigious noise." A year later, he remarked, "I have been kept awake since five o'clock this morning by the incessant noise of cannons and firecrackers. That is the American fashion of showing their satisfaction. To them, noise personifies joy!"

All I can say is, I'm glad cannons went out of fashion a while back.

8:29 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Keira, what a fabulous quote you found!

4:21 AM  
Blogger Jenny said...

A great post, thank you. Has anyone read 'The Firemaster's Mistress' by Christa Dickason - set around the time of the gunpowder plot, it's not quite a murder mystery but definitely worth a read.

6:02 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

"Has anyone read 'The Firemaster's Mistress' by Christa Dickason - set around the time of the gunpowder plot..."

I never heard of the novel 'til now, Jennifer, but it sounds really intriguing! It's certainly a provocative title.

6:52 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Glad to know my curmudgeonlyness is historically well founded (even if French!). Last night was even worse, explosions so loud they shook the whole house. I just don’t “get” the Forth of July. Even as a kid, once the thrill of the black charcoal snakes wore off, it was my least favorite holiday.

I’d love to do something with a big fireworks show over the Thames in one of my books (of course, all I can picture at the moment is the scene from Shanghi Knights where the fireworks are part of a plot to kill the whole royal family, LOL!). And yes, I adore Owen Wilson and his broken nose and will watch pretty much anything he’s in.

7:15 AM  

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