Street Fireworks in the 1920s
Chicago, Illinois
July 4th, circa 1925

Memoir by
Donald L. Franson


March 1973

A hot and sparkling evening

Even after a full day of shooting off firecrackers (mostly little Chinese ones, a nickel a hundred, patiently separated and fired off one by one), we kids looked forward to the night fireworks. These were not the starlight clusters seen in the distance, but the neighborhood display.

After supper and slow-to-come darkness (even with no daylight-savings time) we all went out on the front porch, my brother and I, and parents included. The continual bang and rumble of the Fourth still went on; all kids hadn't exhausted their stock, and the Chicago parks were starting up. People were outside mostly, if it was a hot night, as there was no air conditioning. If a storm was threatening it was sultry, and the radio loud-speaker crackled.

We never were the first, but soon we saw sparklers waving across the street. We had them: long narrow cardboard boxes with a dozen straight wires in them, one end crusted with something. You held the plain end. We all four took sparkler wires and someone lighted them all. The end glowed red, and white sparks magically sprayed out, dying away a few inches from the source. You held your hand near the sparks and felt a warmth — but don't touch the red hot wire! Despite horror stories of little girls set afire, sparklers were relatively safe (they are legal even now). Everyone held sparklers and waved them around, tracing figures in the air.

We had some colored lights too, but we stuck them in the ground — we had some fear of them. They were like green and red flares.

That's all we had for night fireworks, but some people across the street (must have been rich or spendthrift) had roman candles and stuff. We thought such things as pinwheels and skyrockets were marvels beyond us. Some bold man was lighting firecrackers — big ones — and throwing them out into the street. You could see the train of sparks, then the flash and bang, sometimes in the air. I never had the courage to do that — I always lit them and ran. If you got hurt by a firecracker you'd get lockjaw, they said. But we kids never worried too much about firecrackers, even if some parents did (and eventually banned them).

Every street had its display, you could see them flickering beyond the houses. There were bangs from the corner where kids were shooting off salutes — you could hear the tinkle of the tin cans coming down.

Over the rumble and roar of the fireworks, sounding like a battlefield, you might soon hear the rumble of thunder. Heat lightning in the distance. A storm coming up. People said it was the effect of the fireworks.

Then the rain, and welcome relief from the heat. The house was still hot — we'd open the doors and let the air blow through. Our Fourth of July was over for another year.


© 1973 Donald L. Franson


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