Exactly a century ago, as Independence Day rolled around, Cincinnati debated how to celebrate. America was at war that year, and American troops were overseas, fighting across Europe. At home, the government gave men a choice: work or fight. In other words, men who did not work in strategically important areas such as farming or ship-building were expected to enlist. Women began appearing in previously forbidden jobs such as hotel clerks.
The general population supported the war effort by rationing wheat, sugar and other foods and by planting “war gardens” to supplement supplies appropriated to feed the troops. The nation’s first propaganda office, the Committee on Public Information, sent “Four Minute Men” to every gathering place – movie theaters, restaurants, town meetings – to deliver brief speeches in support of the war. Conservation of substances with military value, such as fats, scrap metal and gun powder was mandated by law.
Which brings us to fireworks and the philosophical quandary faced by Cincinnati in 1918. Are fireworks necessary to boost public spirit and opinion in favor of the war? Or are they frivolously wasteful expenditures of valuable military supplies? Ohio’s Fire Marshal Alfred T. Fleming, who told the Cincinnati Post [13 March 1918]:
“Powder this year should be saved for ‘over there.’ And one rocket equals several loaves of bread in cost.”
Frank H. Stevenson, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant downtown, was not alone in declaring that all of the traditional Independence Day celebrations ought to be suspended for the duration. He told the Post [31 May 1918]:
“This Fourth of July should be a day of prayer for our boys in France and for the success of allied arms.”
Rev. Stephenson objected to “speedway races or festivals and picnics.” Hyde Park went ahead with a neighborhood festival but pointedly eliminated the fireworks display in favor of athletic games, band concerts, a public grab bag with toys for every child, speeches and scouting exhibitions. The Post [2 July 1918] enthused:
“So busy will the boys and girls of Hyde Park be all of Fourth of July they will not have time to burn fingers with fireworks.”
College Hill joined the fireworks-less parade with a day of band concerts, moving pictures, community singing, patriotic speeches and athletics.
Price Hill arranged for two “large war airplanes” from Dayton’s airfields to land at Mount Echo Park amid speeches, military drills and music.
Norwood planned a big picnic at Waterworks Park at the conclusion of a parade featuring Red Cross volunteers, Home Guards and Boy Scouts.
The Cincinnati Post [3 July 1918] predicted the “sanest” Independence Day celebration ever, and painted a picture of a harmonious Fourth minus fireworks:
“Thousands will hear bands play patriotic airs at the parks. Other thousands will watch children dance and hear them sing on the playgrounds. Still others will witness parades and baseball games. And into the hearts of all will be read a message direct from President Wilson. It will come through the Four Minute Men, the president’s personal representatives.”
The Cincinnati Post [29 June 1918] gave front-page coverage for a group of boys who took the pledge not to set off fireworks on the Fourth. The “young patriots” in question were Louis Ihrig of Ohio Avenue, Leo Agostin of Mansfield Street, Leonard Levy and Robert Davis of Harvey Avenue, and Morris Meyer of Cutter Street.
Despite the pressure, the Cincinnati Fire Prevention Bureau realized that someone, somewhere was still going to set off fireworks. Bureau Chief Edward Steinigeweg issued a set of safety rules that still make sense today: Don’t let children play with matches. Don’t throw fireworks into buildings. Keep fireworks away from horses. Don’t shoot off rockets near lumberyards.
The Brendamour sporting goods company ran advertisements clearly bypassing any voluntary or mandatory ban:
“Drop in and buy the children some fireworks. Let them celebrate Independence Day with the right spirit.”
A writer for the Cincinnati Post [29 June 1918] complained that they just didn’t make fireworks like they used to:
“When I was your age, they let us blow ourselves up with cannon crackers that were a foot long and two inches thick and cost 35 cents apiece. And we could buy cannon and gun powder in the candy store around the corner and we kept the Fire Department and the doctors and the hospitals busy all day. Those were the days.”
As one might expect, the fireworks ban was honored more in the breech than in the observance. On July 5, Cincinnatians awoke to a long casualty list. This is about half of the list published that day by the Enquirer:
Dr. N.S. Bush of Norwood refused to buy fireworks for his son, so 10-year-old Marion went over to a neighbor’s house where an exploding cannon sent him to the hospital with facial burns.
John Walsh, 6, and Edward Bertien, 4, of Hyde Park injured their eyes while playing with firecrackers.
Norman Seelman, 9, of Sayler Park was shot in the chin while watching a neighbor boy load a pistol with blank cartridges.
Raymond Garrison, 25, Over-the-Rhine was burned badly when someone dumped cigarette ashes into his hand as he was loading gunpowder into a cannon.
Surgeons amputated the right hand of Arthur Hucker, 10, Norwood. He was holding a cannon cracker when it exploded.
Have a safe, sane and happy Fourth of July!
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.