The 1900s Movement to Make the Fourth of July Boring (But Safe)

One activist thought celebrating the founding of the nation would be better spent as a “a quiet day under the trees”

An 1897 poster critiquing the McKinley administration set during the Fourth of July shows the inherent danger of do-it-yourself fireworks. (Library of Congress / Louis Dalrymple )
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Charles Pennypacker, a lawyer and legislator from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was fed up with Fourth of July. The holiday, he insisted in 1903, was hopelessly out of control. Hundreds of people across the U.S. were dying from a mix of firework explosions and poorly shot toy guns, all in the name of celebrating their country’s founding.

“A spurious patriotism has brought a day of terror, misery, noise, destruction, and death,” Pennypacker lamented in a letter published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He urged citizens to focus on a “quiet and sane observance of the Fourth” that prioritized family gatherings.

Instead of setting off fireworks, Pennypacker begged the people of West Chester to take a trolley ride, spend “a quiet day under the trees,” or at the very least bake “cake with deviled eggs” and “bread with lemon butter.” In a speech that the Louisville-based Courier-Journal reprinted under the headline “Avaunt! Toy Pistols; Enter Cake and Eggs,” Pennypacker lectured his fellow Americans: “Spend your money for sandwiches instead of squibs,” referring to the explosive devices. “The price of five skyrockets will buy a hammock, whose swing delights youth and old age in all lands,” he said.

Pennypacker’s crusade enraged locals. A year later, the Inquirer reported that his continued push for reform in West Chester “had been resented by the young men of the town.” Late the night of July 3, 1904, a “large number of young men” gathered outside Pennypacker's house, clutching Roman candles and other combustibles. When midnight hit, “there was a sudden flash and roar that jarred all the houses in the neighborhood,” the paper said, and for at least 15 minutes the men set off explosives outside of Pennypacker’s window—all to punish the legislator for trying to reform the most patriotic holiday.

But Pennypacker’s wasn’t the only American disgusted with the rowdiness of Fourth of July celebrations, and negative press coverage quickly ignited a reform movement. Pennypacker was one member of a disparate group of lawmakers and social reformers across the U.S. who called for an end to unsupervised fireworks and explosives. Under the banner “Safe and Sane Fourth,” they insisted that Fourth of July celebrations should focus on family and picnicking, remaining free of violence.

Their complaints were not unfounded. In the early 20th century, the Fourth of July was often a dangerous holiday. In 1903 alone, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 466 people died and 4,449 people were injured from holiday-related accidents. Infections from tetanus precipitated a large swath of those deaths, triggered by shrapnel from fireworks and toy guns that got into a person's skin. From 1903 to 1909, a full two-thirds of July 4th deaths connected to explosive incidents were tetanus deaths. The New York Tribune lamented Fourth of July “carnage” and warned of the “emergencies of over-patriotism.”

A "victim" of the celebrations in Richmond, Virginia is taken to safety, July 1910. (The Times Dispatch / Library of Congress)

Kids who roamed the streets shooting fireworks or setting off explosives along train tracks may have felt they were honoring the wishes of John Adams, who in 1776 wrote that, in addition to “Pomp and Parade,” the Fourth should be celebrated with “Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations.”

In major newspapers, sensational reports of Fourth of July incivilities were rampant. A 1884 New York Times article noted that, when a group of Colorado miners didn’t receive the fireworks they had ordered in time for the holiday, they “blew up the post office.” Homeowners in Worcester, Massachusetts, meanwhile, professed that they cancelled their vacations because “people who have property on the Fourth are obliged to remain at home and protect it.”

A Baltimore Sun editorial writer noted in June 1904, “Every year human life is sacrificed in expressing the nation’s joy over the revolt against an English tyrant and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.” The culprits: “The toy pistol, the toy cannon and the giant firecracker claim many victims on each recurrence of this anniversary.” Or, as the Playground Association of America framed it in 1910, “The killed and injured at the battle of Bunker Hill were only 1,474 as compared with 1,622 killed and injured while ‘celebrating’ the fourth of July in 1909.”

The Safe and Sane movement promoted new kinds of Fourth of July celebrations that proponents, like Pennypacker, hoped would minimize the carnage. In 1903, the mayor of Chicago issued an executive order that “hereby positively and absolutely prohibited” a large swath of activities associated with Fourth of July misbehavior, including the “discharges of fireworks, firecrackers, gunpowder, or other explosives in any alley, back yard, or other confined space” as well as “the discharge of cannons, guns, pistols, revolvers or other firearms, dynamite or cannon crackers” and—apparently a feature of Fourth of July festivities— “the placing upon the car tracks of any street railway [...] any torpedo, bomb, or other thing containing any substance of an explosive nature.”

Cleveland, Ohio, passed a city ordinance banning the sale of toy pistols, blank cartridges, and firecrackers within city limits. (The city council briefly considered banning fireworks, too, until a councilmen admitted to having made “a considerable investment” in fireworks in anticipation of the Fourth.) Women’s reform organizations like the San Francisco chapter of California Club took up the issue, too, pointing out forgotten laws that prohibited the sale of toy pistols to kids under 17.

Many cities also developed new celebrations that would steer people away from setting off explosives: Kansas City set up places to play water sports and hired 13 different bands to perform across parks in the city. Santa Fe had a beauty pageant. Chicago attempted to introduce a fireworks event for children supervised by firefighters but couldn't make its needed $50,000 in fundraising. Minneapolis raised $2,000 to give “each child received a basket containing a lunch and firecrackers” as well as “coupons entitling them to refreshment and fun privileges” and to monitor their antics.

“The major push of the movement were community based events that gave citizens something to do on the Fourth,” says James R. Heintze, a librarian at American University who studies the history of the holiday.

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The Safe and Sane movement even reached the White House. Although no national law was introduced to reform the celebrations, President William Howard Taft wrote in 1909 that he was “heartily in sympathy with the movement to rid the celebration of our country’s natal days of these distressing accidents.” A year later, Taft attended a “Safe and Sane” Fourth of July march in Boston—which was entirely firecracker-free—and noted that he “hope[d] it would spread throughout the Union.”

Not everyone was pleased—a 1928 New Yorker short story satirized the movement for its perceived prudishness—but Taft’s prediction came true. By 1953, 28 states had fireworks laws. Although today casualties are still rampant—in 2017, 12,900 people were hospitalized and several died from fireworks-related accidents—fears about a violent Fourth of July have dissipated. In recent years, several states have removed bans on fireworks. Many of those bans dated back to the reform movement of the early 1900s. Several California counties, for instance, still have legal language on the books that prohibits fireworks—unless they are “safe and sane.”

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