Lost limbs and fingers, burns, blinding explosions, lockjaw and death. In the early 1900s, fireworks had not yet been perfected. Dangerous concoctions of explosives were used as an exciting way to celebrate our country’s independence, but the price was steep. Giant firecrackers, cannon fire, firearms, and rockets were just some of the loud and bright, but dangerous, tools used for festivities.
In 1903 the American Medical Association began keeping records of people injured and killed in Fourth of July festivities. By 1910 there had been more than 1,500 deaths and 33,000 injuries. Officials started taking notice and a campaign began to have a “safe and sane” Fourth of July that included celebrations without explosives. “If the grim stare from the sixty-eight eye-sockets made empty by last year’s celebration does not appeal to authorities unwilling to enroll under the ‘safe and sane’ banner let them go to the nearest cemetery and count a thousand little mounds of sod and then half as many again and still more,” noted one grim article from the Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA) of July 3, 1910.
No fireworks or firecrackers were seen in cities such as Washington, Baltimore, Minneapolis and Cleveland as mayors tried to keep the carnage to a minimum. Celebrations instead focused on parades, music, feasts, flag drills and folk dancing. Pageants, recitations, and reenactments of patriotic valor replaced the flashy powder blasts for many. Attention was especially paid to making sure that firecrackers were kept out of the hands of children.
Eventually firework displays were allowed again in those cities conducted by professionals, but smaller explosives such as firecrackers were still discouraged until they became safer for the public. Even today we read stories of injuries each year as people set off their own fireworks. So enjoy the colors and the lights of fireworks as we celebrate our country’s independence, but please remember to keep it “safe and sane!”
Read more in our guide to Fourth of July Celebrations: