Friday, July 3, 2009

Midst the Rockets' Yellow Glare

We’ve discussed various holidays on the blog before, but Independence Day wasn’t one of them (because it started in the eighteenth century and the British, um, lost). However, with the Fourth of July so close at hand, my mind turned to the traditional method of celebrating here in the states: fireworks.

Nineteenth century lads and lasses celebrated major events with fireworks too. Little Chinese crackers, then as now, were popular for lighting and throwing about. But the bigger shows were also a big hit.

Then as now, one of the safest places to light off the rockets was over water. Vauxhall Pleasure Garden, located as it was near the River Thames and boasting its own water features, let off fireworks at the end of each night’s party. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was first played there in 1749 in a grand spectacular. Fireworks also burst overhead as millions of people turned out for the crowning of Queen Victoria.

Then too, fireworks could mark private celebrations. Many an aristocrat ended a evening’s dinner or ball with fireworks over their private gardens. The fire masters, as the pyrotechnic engineers were often called, were much in demand to develop ever larger and more elaborate displays, from dragons fighting to a temple that transformed in billows of smoke! Even the Prince Regent’s favorite architect, John Nash, got involved in building “machines” to house the displays.

Until the middle of the century, however, the primary colors were orange and white. The photo at the top by Tim Parkin gives you a good idea what they probably looked like. In the 1830s, fire masters discovered that burning metallic salts with potassium chlorate would give them many more colors to play with. You might say they went forth with a bang.

May your celebrations be safe but just as merry!

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