Today, Americans will celebrate the fourth of July the way founding father John Adams intended: by exploding lots of pretty chemicals in the sky. But as you sit back and become mesmerized by the sparkler in your hand, pause to remember a fateful day in 1974, when the United States almost banned consumer fireworks entirely.
America’s relationship with fireworks has been complicated. At the beginning, the founding fathers were really into them. Famously, Adams described what a real celebration of independence should look like to his wife, Abigail:
It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
But the dynamics of fireworks policy, trade and even construction have changed a great deal since Adam’s idyllic interpretation, largely because Americans couldn’t figure out how to use fireworks safely. By the late 20th century, fireworks became so dangerous that the US almost banned them outright. Paradoxically, the former directors of the American Pyrotechnics Association tell Inverse that they’re actually happy for that near miss. If it wasn’t for the events of May 16, 1974, we probably wouldn’t have any fireworks today.
1966: Ban the Bomb
The thing to remember about fireworks is that they are, at their core, explosives. Over the years, the US got really good and making bombs bigger, better, and more dangerous. This was particularly noticeable after World War Two, when explosives like the M80 and M100, designed to fight Nazis, fell into use back home. “The reason there was a proliferation of those is because they were technically military devices,” Julie Heckman, the current executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, (APA) tells Inverse. “So they were prevalent after World War Two.”
By the ‘60s, these military devices had gotten out of hand. Time reported in 1964 that a crowd of 500,000 New Yorkers “applauded delightedly” when a fireworks barge exploded prematurely, killing two crew members. The next year, the New York Times reported that a U.S. sailor was killed by mishandling fireworks while celebrating on a Naval Base in Toledo, Spain. The causes of both of these accidents were military-grade fireworks turned fourth of July toys, many of which were being made illegally.
Finally, in 1966, the US instituted a blanket ban on military-grade fireworks, making it illegal for anyone without a professional license to obtain. But a whole new category of fireworks emerged after 1966, which caused a whole new set of problems.
A Great Leap Backwards
“There were two major things going on,” John Conkling, pyrotechnic chemist and former executive director of the APA, tells Inverse. “One was the continuing sale of large firecracker-like devices. The second thing that was that the U.S. domestic manufacturing that had been reasonable before, was being totally overwhelmed by imports from China.”
After the ban on military-grade fireworks, the US received an influx of consumer-level products from China. This happened primarily because, for the first time since the Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, the US and China were actually talking again, thanks in part to Nixon’s move to officially end the 21-year US trade embargo on Chinese goods.
Suddenly, the fireworks floodgates opened — and the products they let in weren’t just any fireworks.
The new products were really good and really safe, according to Conkling. “Imports were beginning to come into the US from China, and one of the major categories of these imports were consumer fireworks,” Conkling describes. “The Chinese had very fascinating, beautiful well-performing consumer fireworks, and they were getting a lot of market attention.”
This was not destined to last. Very soon, the American demand for cheaper products began to pressure the Chinese firework producers. They were used to creating delicate pieces of explosive art, but most Americans wanted quantity, and they wanted it fast. Producers began to cut corners, Conkling says, and it was problematic. At the time, he was using his expertise as a pyrotechnical chemist at Washington College in Maryland to help examine and test fireworks.
The injures began again. In Brookfield, Illinois, sparks flew erratically out of a launching tube during a 1972 fourth of July parade, causing injuries and general panic. It was no longer the explosive quality of the fireworks that was causing the injuries, Conkling says. It was little details: A top-heavy tube might fall over, shooting a rocket into the crowd, or a faulty fuse might burn faster than a user expects.
Events like the disaster in Brookfield drew the attention of a newly minted federal agency: the Consumer Product Safety Commission, an offshoot of the Food and Drug Administration. The CPSC was a young agency with something to prove, and its first target was consumer fireworks. On May 16, 1974, the CPSC proposed its ban, issuing regulations underlining the hazardous nature of faulty fireworks. According to a CPSC press release from 1975:
On May 16, 1974, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued regulations banning the sale to consumers, as hazardous substances, all firecrackers as well as other fireworks which did not meet specified safety standards and labeling requirement.
Building a Better Firework
Conkling, alarmed by the proposed ban, set to work developing a new protocol that could make imported fireworks safer. Without more stringent regulation, America could risk losing fireworks for good.
With the APA, he compiled a list of ways to standardize fireworks and make them safer. The interventions they came up with had less to do with the actual chemicals involved, Heckman says, and more to do with the construction of each firework. “Tipover tests,” for example, ensured that fireworks wouldn’t tip over and shoot back into a person’s face. Famously, they studied how long a firework fuse could burn before users got antsy.
“There were human factor studies done to see to see at what point if the fuse didn’t light, at what point would somebody try to re-approach it,” Heckman says. The ideal length for “fuse burn,” they learned, is between six to nine seconds. Any shorter and you might not have time to clear the area. Any longer, and you might re-approach to investigate and get singed.
Eventually, the APA took these recommendations, among others, to Administrative Judge Paul Pfeiffer, who had been listening to similar testimony across the country from Kansas City to Honolulu. Among the various people who had made similar pleas to Pfeiffer were trade groups, pyrochemists, and, according to a contemporaneous New York Times article, “Chinese Americans in Hawaii, who said fireworks played an important role in their religious and cultural celebrations.”
On June 18, 1974, Conkling and the APA were victorious: The CPSC voted to reconsider its blanket ban on consumer fireworks — less than month before Independence Day.
Immediately after the CPSC vote, Conkling began making trips to China —he estimates roughly 40 in total — in an attempt to set up a lab to test fireworks according to CPSC regulations. That lab, called the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, has made significant progress in keeping fireworks safe for all of us. It still exists today.
Today, Conkling looks back fondly on the tumultuous time that almost derailed both his livelihood and America Independence Day celebrations as we know them. “That was the action that saved the consumer fireworks industry,” he says.