Things That Go BANG!

CakeAndrea here, Today is a special festive day here in America. The fourth of July—our Independence Day—is a high point of the summer season. Traditionally celebrated with outdoor barbeques replete with hot dogs, hamburgers and raspberry-blueberry-whipped cream flag cakes—hip, hip hooray for the red, white and blue! And along with all-American food, fireworks is an integral part of the festivities.

So, in the spirit of “things that go bang,” I thought I would give a few highlights on the history of gunpowder, which is the catalyst of filling the skies with bursts of bright color.

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National Days!

by Mary FireworksatWashingtonMonumentJo

Most countries of the world have national days that celebrate their identity. That usually usually means the day that independence was proclaimed, as in the US, or negotiated, as was the case in many countries that had been colonized like much of Africa. But there can be lots of variations.

Hungary, for example, celebrates St. Stephen's Day. The United Kingdom doesn't exactly have a national day, though sometimes the Queen's Official Birthday the second weekend in June is treated as such. (Her birthday is actually April 21st, but the weather is better for speeches and parades in June.) 

However, the UK is composed of four separate countries and they all have celebrations on the day of their patron saints: St. George for England, St. Andrew for Scotland, St. David for Wales, and St. Patrick for Northern Ireland.

A lot of countries have a Constitution Day since creating and affirming a constitution creates a nation in a real sense. (There are Americans who believe crafting and confirming the US Constitution was more vital than declaring independence, and they have a good case for that.)

There are other interesting national days. Albania celebrates Albanian DuckinCanada2Day on November 28th, for example, and it's a celebration of its independence. Alderney, one of Britain's Channel Isles, celebrates Homecoming Day on December 15, which was the day in 1945 when the German occupation ended and islanders who had fled were able to return home.

Our neighbor Canada has a neighboring national day as well: July 1st is Canada Day, which commemorates the 1867 joining of several British colonies into one, the AnniversaryFlagDominion of Canada. Happy 151st birthday, Canada!  Here's a picture of the giant rubber ducky that visited for last year's sesquicentennial celebration. (I love that duck. <G>)

France's national day is Bastille Day, July 14th, and it commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789, which is considered the beginning of the French Revolution.  France and the US have a lot of history in common Australia_Day 2004 by Philip Whitehouse  Wikipedia Commons

Australia Day is January 26th and commemorates the 1788 landing of the First Fleet of British ships when they arrived in New South Wales and raised the British flag in Sydney Cove, which became the site of the great city of Sydney.

Celebrations are similar around the world. Parades are always popular. In my Maryland county there are three Independence Day parades in different areas of the county, and the timing is staggered so that local politicians can attend all three, riding in convertibles and waving at their constituents, which is about as close as we usually get to them.  Fireworks are definitely popular world wide because–noisy and pretty, something for everyone.  <G>

There are floats and bands and social clubs marching together, but my very favorite local parade entry was the tattooed and bearded biker slowly cruising along on his hog, with his two very well behaved basset hounds draped over the big  fenders. Great fun!

The Fourth of July is also a time for family gatherings and barbecues with hot dogs, hamburgers, and watermelon. From what I've heard from friends in other EiffelTowerFireworks.Pierre.Caradoc.WikipediaCommonscountries, this kind of celebration is global, though the food and drink might vary. 

But mostly, national days are for honoring our countries and the best that is in them. What are your national days, and what do you do on them? Because all nations are special, and we are part of our nations.

Wherever you live, what are your special days and how do you celebrate them?  With pride and gusto, I hope!

Mary Jo


A Bang of a Birthday!

Fireworks 2 Andrea/Cara here, festooned in red, white and blue for America’s grand birthday party celebration today. And for all of you in other countries around the globe, come party with us! You’re invited to come to share in the hot dogs, hamburgers, blueberries, strawberries and whipped cream that are among the traditional picnic favorites served across our country.

11012526_411371915725626_5290902940259848619_nAnother grand tradition of the day is fireworks—no Fourth of July would be complete without the spectacular bursts of bright colors and loud bands lighting up the night sky. (Quite fitting, I suppose, since creating our country demanded that we set off a few sparks!) It’s interesting to note that John Adams, one of our Founding Fathers, wrote a letter on July 4th, 1776—our Declaration of Independence day—in which he predicted that future celebrations would include pyrotechnics. (I don’t think we’ve disappointed him!)
“The day will be most memorable in the history of America,” he predicted. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade…bonfires and illuminations …from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”

Furttenbach_FeuerwerkAnd since you all know how much we love history here at the Word Wenches, I couldn't resist doing a little research on the history of fireworks—and here are a few highlights. Celebrating grand events with fireworks goes back centuries, to around 600 AD in China, when the fortuitous combination of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur (likely the result of a kitchen accident) first created the basic formula for gunpowder. Known as “firedrug” some of its early uses included being  packed in bamboo cylinders and thrown into the fire to ward off evil spirits.

Fireworks 3Gunpowder went on to have far more bellicose uses, of course, but the use of fireworks in ceremonial celebrations—battle victories, coronations, milestone anniversaries—has become a tradition in all parts of the globe. Here are a few more fun facts from its glorious history!

In medieval England, explosive specialists were called Fire Masters, and their assistants were called “green men” because they worn hats made of leaves to protect their heads.

In Renaissance Italy, pyrotechnics was viewed as an art (but of course!) and there were schools to train masters to create elaborate displays.

Fireworks became very popular among European rulers as a way to entertain their subjects—and emphasis their own grandeur. The first recorded display in England was on Henry VII’s wedding day in 1486. In France, Versailles was the site of many spectacular illuminations, while in Russia, Tsar Peter the Great staged a display that last over five hours to celebrate the birth of his son.


Fireworks 4 Legend has it that Captain John Smith set off he first display of pyrotechnics in America at Jamestown in 1608. And in 1731, the colonists of Rhode Island apparently became so rowdy with setting off bangs (hmm, do you think a wee dram of alcohol may have been involved?) that the authorities passed a law banning the “mischievous use of pyrotechnics.”

Fireworks 1I love fireworks! (History definitely shows that the colors and the noise clearly appeals to some sort of primitive love of fire in our brains.) How about you? Do you enjoy watching fireworks? Have you a favorite event to attend? The best display I’ve ever seen have been the marvelous NYC 4th of July extravaganza over the east River. It’s absolutely spectacular, especially when seen from the Queens side with the NYC skyline in the background. I’ll be watching it tonight, though unfortunately this year it will just be on TV. Happy Birthday, America!

Stars and Stripes Forever!

AP-avatarCara/Andrea here,

Flag-cakeToday is a festive day here in the United States as all around the 50 states we celebrate the birthday of our nation with lots of traditional All-American parties. There are town picnics, featuring hamburgers, hot dogs, coleslaw, strawberry ice cream and blueberry pie, followed by a blaze of brilliant fireworks (I always enjoy watching the dazzling display over the National Mall in Washington, DC on television.) And of course there is much flag waving, with bright flashes of red, white and blue snapping in the summer breeze.

USAThe sight of the Stars and Stripes sets many a heart aflutter. It’s a symbol of our country, and all the courage and sacrifices it’s taken to make it. In times of trouble, it’s a rallying point, reminding us of the elemental bonds that unite us despite our many differences.

AchaemenidImperialStandardFlags have long played a colorful role in history. (By the by, the study of flags is known as vexillology, from the Latin vexillum, which means flag or banner.)  One of the earliest flags on record—albeit a bronze one—was unearthed in Iran and dates back to the third century BC. It’s assumed that it was used in military action, and indeed, most early flag were used on the battlefield to help the combatants identify who was friend and who was foe. Both the ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon mention the Achaemenid battle standards carried by the Persian armies. And a distinctive Dragon standard was carried by the mounted Sarmatian warriors of the steppes.

Medieval-flagBy the High Middle Ages, heraldic flags and banners became popular as it wasn’t easy to see the crest emblazoned on an individual’s knight’s shield during the heat of combat. As principalities, city states and  cantons such as those of the Swiss confederacy arose, they too, began to design flags to herald their identity. Dukedoms, kingdoms, Empires . . . it became a matter of pride to have one’s own distinctive symbol of identity.

Some Random Flag Facts:

DenmarkThe flag of Denmark, known as the Dannebrog, dates back to the 13th century and is the oldest national flag still in use.

FranceThe flag of France was designed in 1794 and reflects the tricolor symbol of the French Revolution.

Nepal.The flag of Nepal, the only national flag that is not a rectangular shape.

Original USAThe first flag hoisted by general Washington over the Continental Army in January 1776  had thirteen red and white stripes and the Union Jack in the upper left hand corner. Now, we all know that later that year, Betsy Ross stitched up a new design with thirteen stars arranged in a circle to created a uniquely “American” look, free of British influence. In 1777, the Continental Congress confirmed the design as the official flag of the new nation passed the first Flag Act, which read “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

USASince then, the act has been amended several times to allow for additional stars to be added as new states came into the union. Today, "Old Glory" has thirteen stripes—seven red and six white—which represent the original thirteen colonies. Fifty white stars symbolizing the fifty states are arranged on the dark blue field in the upper left hand corner. The colors have meaning as well—red stands for hardiness and valor, white symbolizes purity and innocence and blue represents vigilance and justice.

FireworksSo, that about sews up my brief overview on flags. But before I hoist a final salute to the Stars and Stripes on America’s birthday, I’ll end with a word of thanks for all the gifts that our country has given us. There are many things for which I am profoundly grateful, but perhaps most of all, I am glad to live in a land that give
s us the freedom to think and to use our imagination without having to conform to any rigid set of rules. That’s something wonderful to celebrate in my book—let the fireworks begin!

What is it about America that you are most grateful for? And if you’re not American, what quality about the U.S. do you admire most? And lastly, to end on a party note, what’s your favorite All-American Fourth of July picnic staple? Mine is chocolate chip cookies!

Regency Pyrotechnics

Catherine wheels wikiJoanna here.

What do Vauxhall, the court of Queen Elizabeth, Cuper's Gardens, (which is described intriguingly as "the scene of low dissipation . . . and the great resort of the profligate of both sexes" — rather like our local mall,) thFurttenbach_Feuerwerk1644e celebration of the wedding of George III, and Kensington Gardens have in common?

Fireworks.  Big, bright rockets and Catherine wheels and crackers.  Fireworks were the sound and light show of the Eighteenth Century.  The extravaganza that marked all great and festive events.

Sometimes there was music.  You can listen to Handel's Fireworks Music, for instance, here.  I'll admit I was expecting something with more booms in it.


“…. fireworks had for her a direct and magical appeal. Their attraction was more complex than that of any other form of art. They had pattern and sequence, colour and sound, brilliance and mobility; they had suspense, surprise, and a faint hint of danger; above all, they had the supreme quality of transience, which puts the keenest edge on beauty.”
Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver


Fireworks came out of China, like printing, dim sum and Bruce Lee.  The original fireworks date back to the Ninth Century or so.  They, were firecrackers made of gunpowder, stuffed into thin bamboo shoots.  Oddly enough, the original use of pyrotechnics was not warfare.  All this gunpowder was set off at the new year to scare away evil spirits.  It probably worked.

Knowledge of gunpowder arrived in the Middle East and Europe in the 1200s.  Marco Polo sometimes gets the credit, and why shouldn't he? 


“You're much better than fireworks. They're all over in a moment, and you're going to stay for a fortnight. Besides, fireworks are noisy, and they make too much smoke.”
Kate Ross, Cut to the Quick

One of the first mentions of fireworks is in Roger Bacon's Opus Majus.  Roger-bacon-wiki

"… that children's toy which is made in many diverse parts of the world, a device no bigger than one's thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpetre, together with sulphur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder, so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, with no more than a bit of parchment containing it, that we find the ear assaulted by a noise exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning."
Early English fireworks specialists were — it's not surprising — military gunners.  The same men who used gunpowder to send an iron ball shooting out of a cannon, used that knowledge to create and explode fireworks.  They formed craft guilds across Europe, traveled, exchanged information, and wrote long treatises on the formulas and methods.    

Fireworks 2 and illuminations 1749This here is a vast fireworks display over the Thames in 1748 at the Duke of Richmond to celebrate the ending of the War of the Austrian Succession.  This is the shindig for which Handel wrote that music linked above.  

See there in the middle of the Thames?  Those rockets going up and letting off a globe and lights falling out were called 'stars'. 

To make falling stars —
"… the stuffe which is to be put into the Rocket for to flame and give crackes is made of twelve partes of Saltpeeter refind, of Citrine Brimstone nine partes, of grosse gunpowder five partes and 1/4 of a part mingled togeather with your hand."

That mixture was moistened and formed into small pieces, then packed into a ball and wound tightly Fireworks wikiround with packthread, given a fuse, and placed in the head of a rocket.  When the rocket exploded, the stars would stream down in the air.

One observer said it seemed "as if the sky has opened … as if all the air in the world is filled with fireworks and all the stars in the heavens are falling to earth …  a thing truly stupendous and marvelous to behold."


"We were ready for the apocalypse and when it didn't come we were very disappointed. So we drank more absinthe and set off fireworks."
Marilyn Manson


Black powderWhat our Regency folks would have called 'gun powder', what we might call 'black powder' today, was made from three main ingredients.  There were some other additives, but thee were the Big Three.

Ground charcoal.  The best charcoal, the sort used for fireworks — was made from willow, alder or black dogwood. 

Sulphur, which had to be perfectly clean and free from sulfuric acid. 

And saltpeter. Saltpeter is interesting stuff.  It's mainly potassium nitrate.  The name, sal petrae, 'salt of rock' is because it's found as an incrustation on rocks.  Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century folks mined it in dungheaps and farmyards and caves favored by bats for many years. Or they cultivated it deliberately by composting manure for a year, adding additional urine.  It was the urea in urine that bacteria broke down to the useful nitrates.

I haven't found any Regency reference to the idea that saltpeter suppresses sexual desire.  Either I just haven't found it or they hadn't thought that up yet.

Back to the ingredients for fireworks.
It's somewhat a matter of what they didn't have. Iron filings might be added to make a brighter and more intense flame, but fireworks were white and yellow.  They didn't have color.  It wasn't till the 1830s that folks started adding the metals that give color to fireworks.  All our red, blues and greens, the Regency folks never saw.

The rockets that launched all this display looked something like these Congreve rockets — military rockets — from 1805. Congreve_rocket pub dom 1805
  Rockets for firework displays were made of paper, filled with powder.  The height of accent and the timing of the explosion was carefully controlled by the tightness of the packing, the size of the case and the length of the cotton fuse.  A long stick fixed the rocket to the ground, setting the flight at the proper angle.

And they had Catherine wheels.  As early as 1540, Florence and Siena in Italy erected huge wood and papier mache wheels set in motion by rockets and fire tubes.  Fireworks 2 display for muhammad shah

Fixed designs like modern fire fountains shot streams of lit powder into the air from rolls of pasteboard filled with gunpowder. I'm particularly impressed with this picture from the mid-Eighteenth Century that shows these fire fountains and the court ladies of Mohammad Shah playing with fireworks.  Brave ladies.

Another fixed display was a spherical 'sun'.
Sun firework 2 public dom
"In the centre of the block of the sun drive a spindle on which put a small hexagonal wheel whose cases must be  filled with the same charge as the cases of the sun…a sun thus made is called a Brilliant Sun because the wood work is intierly covered with fire from the wheel to the middle so there appears nothing but sparks of a brilliant fire."

For the entry of Louis XIII into Lyon in 1623, fireworkers constructed a huge artificial lion with fire bursting from its jaw.

Fireworks were spectacle, display, public celebration.  In 1814, in a jubilee in celebration of peace in London —

"The senses were next astoniFireworks_1856 wikished and enchanted with a pacific exhibition of those tremendous instruments of destruction invented by colonel Congreve. Some notion even of their terrible power might be formed from the display of the night, and their exceeding beauty could be contemplated, divested of its usual awful associations. Each rocket contains in itself a world of smaller rockets: as soon as it is discharged from the gun it bursts, and flings aloft in the air innumerable parcels of flame, brilliant as the brightest stars: the whole atmosphere was illuminated by a delicate blue light, which threw an air of inchantment over the trees and lawns, and made even the motley groups of universal London become interesting as an assembly in romance."


What's the most memorable fireworks you've ever seen or participated in?  Anything from Black Hawkbackyard sparklers to the aurora borealis or australis.  

One lucky commenter will win their choice of Black Hawk or Forbidden Rose.