Firecrackers are essentially un-American, even though they strongly associate them their deeply patriotic celebration, the Fourth of July. The fact is that firecrackers are foreign-born novelties, and have been as long as Americans have lit them for a noisy salute to their nation's birth. As it turns out, firecracker history is as colourful and complicated as the lithographed artwork used to sell them. Warren Dotz, a pop-culture historian, collector, and author of many books, including a pair on cat and dog food labels, spoke with us about their story, while the photos of firecracker labels above and below come from Mike McHenry's Mr. Brick Label Flicker page.
Dotz says that, growing up in New York City, he and his friends were obsessed with firecrackers. In a 2009 interview with Marty Weill at Ephemera, he explained, "The day after the Fourth of July my friends and I would search to salvage the gunpowder in those firecracker 'duds' that hadn't exploded. I also went looking for the black and yellow Black Cat brand and the sky-blue Anchor brand labels that hadn't been blown to smithereens. Years later, I would see these labels, as well as even more spectacular labels, at collectible fairs and flea markets and decided that I would tell their story."
Here are 10 things we learned about firecrackers and their labels from talking to Dotz and reading his Ten Speed Press trade book Firecrackers: The Art & History, published in 2000 and co-authored by Jack Mingo and George Moye.
1. In the Deep South, where the politicians and plantation owners believed that states should hold all the power, Fourth of July was not a big holiday until the 1930s.
There, firecrackers were used to celebrate Christmas between the 1830s and 1930s. They were particularly popular with the enslaved African Americans, who got Christmas off and used whatever change they could scrounge up to buy them. If they couldn't afford firecrackers, enslaved people would fill pig bladders up with air, tie them closed, and then throw them on the fire so they'd pop.
It's possible that plantation owners were reluctant to encourage the celebration of Independence Day, which lauds overthrowing the people in power. And they definitely wanted to encourage their enslaved populations to put their faith in Jesus, who would free them only in the afterlife. This is probably why, in a vintage firecracker-label collection, you'll see images of Santa Claus, as well as racist caricatures of African Americans and even slurs about poor white people, like "Geo'gia Crackers."
2. Manufacturing firecrackers has never been a viable business in the United States.
Firecracker making has always been dangerous work, but in the 19th century, it was done on a relatively small scale, made in Chinese homes and shops by the whole family—mum, dad, and the kids. They'd braid chains of 16-50 for white Americans and links of 1,500-5,000 for Asian Americans, who set them off all at once for Lunar New Year. Firecrackers from numerous small makers would be purchased by big importers like Hitts Fireworks Company in Seattle. Chinese families would work 17 hours a day, seven days a week, for a mere pennies a day.
There was no way American plants could compete with their price and productivity. In the 1910s, British-born Seattle businessman William E. Priestley of Hitts built the first Chinese firecracker factory in Canton, and it wasn't long before the factory caught on fire, killing 30 female workers. Hitts paid each family $30 (£17) in damages. Today, Chinese firecracker factory workers get paid £0.46 to£0.58 a day. More colourful and complicated fireworks, meanwhile, have always had a much higher profit margin, and are sometimes made in the United States or Europe.
3. Since firecrackers are virtually indistinguishable from one another, makers got really creative with the labels.
In the late 19th century, wooden boxes that contained firecrackers would come with a beautifully embossed and hand-painted gold-leaf label, which was also used for a store display, but the individual firecracker chains themselves would be wrapped in plain red paper. But after a shipment of lithography machines arrived in China in the 1910s, glue-on paper labels became an important tool to convince American boys to spend their spare pennies on paper-wrapped "bricks". "Because firecrackers were so inexpensive to produce, competition for the export markets was fierce among manufacturers who essentially had indistinguishable products to peddle," Dotz says. "Product packaging became a crucial component to capturing and keeping customers."
The first labels often referred to ancient Chinese myths that Americans didn't understand but found exotic and exciting, including dragons (protecting humanity from evil), tigers (driving off demons), respected warriors, as well as mythological figures like No Cha, Weaving Maiden, and Moon Maiden. Some labels were more like slice-of-Chinese-life postcard scenes. And since animals were always auspicious symbols in Chinese culture, pretty much every animal you can imagine was featured on a firecracker label, the most popular brands being Zebra, Giraffe, Camel, and Black Cat. "Black cats are considered good luck in China but bad luck in the America," Dotz says. "As the famous brand name of Li & Fung, the Black Cat label has lived out nine lives as probably the longest-surviving brand of all."
As the century progressed, American pop culture was also reflected in these labels, with figures like Daniel Boone, Captain Kidd, Robinson Crusoe, Tarzan, cowboys, King Kong, werewolves, and giants, as well as sports and military imagery and caricatures of African Americans and Native Americans. In the 1950s, the Space Age influenced optimistic labels of rockets, fantastic depictions of flying saucers, and nightmarish images of Atomic bombs. "During the years of cowboy movies and the early days of television, 'Old West' motifs were popular as firecracker artwork was aimed squarely at the heart of the American market with brand such as Cowboy, Buck-a-roo, Bronco, Western Boy," Dotz says.
4. "Carefully take apart an old firecracker, and you might find a bit of news, comics, society columns, or even an old paperback novel from a half-century ago," according to Firecrackers.
Paper has long been a principal material in the manufacturing of firecrackers, but factories in early 20th century China had a difficult time finding enough paper to meet the both the local and export demands for firecrackers. Priestley came up with the idea of newspaper recycling drives in the 1920s. In America, Boy Scouts and churches would raise money by going door-to-door asking for old newspapers and then selling them to a used-paper merchant. The newspapers would then head to China on empty cargo ships that had unloaded all their goods in the United States. These drives lasted into the 1970s.
5. As brighter, more colourful fireworks like Vesuvius Cones and Roman Candles developed in the 20th century, exploding firecrackers became passé and needed more "flash."
In 1916, an engineer working for Hitts Fireworks Company in Seattle had the idea to add the flash powder (then used in flash photography) to the mix. The key ingredient in flash powder was aluminium, and when the new "flashlight firecrackers" or "flash crackers" exploded, they gave off a bright light and had a stronger rapport.
Unfortunately, this new technology made the gunpowder mix even more dangerous for Chinese workers to make, and caused the big fire that killed 30 workers at Priestley's factory.
(All the facts above come from Warren Dotz and his 2000 Ten Speed Press trade book "Firecrackers: The Art and History," co-authored with Jack Mingo and George Moyer. All the images come from Mike McHenry's Mr. Brick Label Flickr page.)
Images: Shutterstock/JIANG HONGYAN