July 4, 2012

Happy Fourth of July!

Here it is—a day when we, as a Nation, celebrate our Independence! A day for togetherness, gratitude, pyrotechnics, and for me—ephemera. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that more than the fireworks displays themselves, I love the fireworks' packaging. A quick search on the internets (click) tells me this:

The history of fireworks goes back thousands of years to China during the Han dynasty (~200 B.C.), even long before gunpowder was invented.  It is believed that the first "firecrackers" were likely chunks of green bamboo, which someone may have thrown onto a fire when dry fuel ran short.  The rods sizzled and blackened, and after a while, unexpectedly exploded. Bamboo grows so fast that pockets of air and sap get trapped inside of the plant's segments.  When heated, the air inside of the hollow reeds expands, and eventually bursts through the side with a long bam!

The strange sound, which had never been heard before, frightened people and animals terribly.  The Chinese figured that if it scared living creatures so much, it would probably scare away spirits - particularly an evil spirit called Nian, who they believed to eat crops and people.  After that, it became customary for them to throw green bamboo onto a fire during the Lunar New Year in order to scare Nian and other spirits far way, thus ensuring happiness and prosperity to their people for the remainder of the year.  Soon, the Chinese were using bursting bamboo for other special occasions, such as weddings, coronations, and births.  The "bursting bamboo", or pao chuk as the Chinese called it, continued to be used for the next thousand or so years. 

Skimming over the creation of gunpowder, and jump to Italy during the Renaissance, and you'll find that the Italians are beginning to develop fireworks into an art form:

Since this was a period of artistic creativity and expression, many new fireworks were created for the first time. Military rockets could be modified by adding powered metals and charcoal in order to create bursts of gold and silver sparks in the sky. The Italians were able to develop aerial shells — canisters of of explosive composition that were launched into the sky and exploded at the maximum altitude (the Chinese also developed shells that were spherical in shape).  However, the most spectacular firework displays were still those made at ground level. Firework makers discovered how a special slower-burning gunpowder mix could be put in an open-ended tube, which would give off sparks when lit. The dense showers of bright sparks resembled water spewing from a fountain, so the new pyrotechnic device was named accordingly. If rocket engines were attached to a wooden wheel framework, it would spin around rapidly and give off sparks in a circular pattern. Sculptors would carve giant, detailed models of castles or palaces, which would be adorned with fountains, wheels, and torches. These "temples", as they were called, were a beautiful and crowd-pleasing sight when ignited. Such displays became in high demand throughout Europe. The idea of controlled fire was fascinating to all, and kings saw no better way to show their wealth and power then by having fireworks at their religious festivals, weddings, and coronation ceremonies.
These firework displays grew more and more elaborate over the years, employing the work of carpenters, metalworkers, masons, and painters to help construct the temples. Firemasters learned that the effects of fireworks could be greatly enhanced by setting them on small floats in water, where more light and noise would be reflected back towards the audience. Starting in the early 1530s, fireworks would usually be ignited by "green men", a term given to firemasters who covered their faces in soot and dressed in leaves in order to both protect themselves from sparks and be hard to see as they ran around lighting fuses. From 1500-1700, the most popular type of firework was the "dragon".  The massive device consisted of a wooden framework which was covered in painted paper-machĂ© scales. Inside, it was loaded with fountains, firecrackers, and rockets, some of which would shoot out of the mouth to make it "breathe fire". Often times, two or more dragons would be constructed and aimed at each other as they ignited to "battle".

Later, the discovery of, "quick match"—a fast burning fuse made by putting regular fuse into a small, continuous paper tube— gave firemasters the ability to ignite many fireworks simultaneously and led to the creation of set pieces. They were the giant pictures/words made from hundreds of small burning torches.

Settlers brought the fireworks over to the Americas around the 1600s, where they continued to be used to celebrate special occasions (or to scare off Native Americans). The first 4th of July Celebration was in 1777, a year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The display was to instill hope and patriotism. When trade relations were established between the U.S. and China (less than a century later), Chinese firecrackers became a major import in America.
While I can't find much on the history of the labels, I can say that graphically speaking, they are brilliant. China offers the largest variety, with India and Britain right behind them. 

Whatever you do this Fourth, I hope you enjoy yourselves. While you're staring up at the sky tonight, don't forget to look down every once and awhile, and hope to find some of these lovely wrappers. xo

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