What do Vauxhall, the court of Queen Elizabeth, Cuper's Gardens, (which is described intriguingly as "the scene of low dissipation . . . and the great resort of the profligate of both sexes" — rather like our local mall,) the celebration of the wedding of George III, and Kensington Gardens have in common?
Fireworks. Big, bright rockets and Catherine wheels and crackers. Fireworks were the sound and light show of the Eighteenth Century. The extravaganza that marked all great and festive events.
Sometimes there was music. You can listen to Handel's Fireworks Music, for instance, here. I'll admit I was expecting something with more booms in it.
“.... fireworks had for her a direct and magical appeal. Their attraction was more complex than that of any other form of art. They had pattern and sequence, colour and sound, brilliance and mobility; they had suspense, surprise, and a faint hint of danger; above all, they had the supreme quality of transience, which puts the keenest edge on beauty.”
Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver
Fireworks came out of China, like printing, dim sum and Bruce Lee. The original fireworks date back to the Ninth Century or so. They, were firecrackers made of gunpowder, stuffed into thin bamboo shoots. Oddly enough, the original use of pyrotechnics was not warfare. All this gunpowder was set off at the new year to scare away evil spirits. It probably worked.
Knowledge of gunpowder arrived in the Middle East and Europe in the 1200s. Marco Polo sometimes gets the credit, and why shouldn't he?
“You're much better than fireworks. They're all over in a moment, and you're going to stay for a fortnight. Besides, fireworks are noisy, and they make too much smoke.”
Kate Ross, Cut to the Quick
One of the first mentions of fireworks is in Roger Bacon's Opus Majus.
"... that children's toy which is made in many diverse parts of the world, a device no bigger than one's thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpetre, together with sulphur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder, so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, with no more than a bit of parchment containing it, that we find the ear assaulted by a noise exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning."
Early English fireworks specialists were — it's not surprising — military gunners. The same men who used gunpowder to send an iron ball shooting out of a cannon, used that knowledge to create and explode fireworks. They formed craft guilds across Europe, traveled, exchanged information, and wrote long treatises on the formulas and methods.
This here is a vast fireworks display over the Thames in 1748 at the Duke of Richmond to celebrate the ending of the War of the Austrian Succession. This is the shindig for which Handel wrote that music linked above.
See there in the middle of the Thames? Those rockets going up and letting off a globe and lights falling out were called 'stars'.
To make falling stars —
"... the stuffe which is to be put into the Rocket for to flame and give crackes is made of twelve partes of Saltpeeter refind, of Citrine Brimstone nine partes, of grosse gunpowder five partes and 1/4 of a part mingled togeather with your hand."
That mixture was moistened and formed into small pieces, then packed into a ball and wound tightly round with packthread, given a fuse, and placed in the head of a rocket. When the rocket exploded, the stars would stream down in the air.
One observer said it seemed "as if the sky has opened ... as if all the air in the world is filled with fireworks and all the stars in the heavens are falling to earth ... a thing truly stupendous and marvelous to behold."
"We were ready for the apocalypse and when it didn't come we were very disappointed. So we drank more absinthe and set off fireworks."
Ground charcoal. The best charcoal, the sort used for fireworks — was made from willow, alder or black dogwood.
Sulphur, which had to be perfectly clean and free from sulfuric acid.
And saltpeter. Saltpeter is interesting stuff. It's mainly potassium nitrate. The name, sal petrae, 'salt of rock' is because it's found as an incrustation on rocks. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century folks mined it in dungheaps and farmyards and caves favored by bats for many years. Or they cultivated it deliberately by composting manure for a year, adding additional urine. It was the urea in urine that bacteria broke down to the useful nitrates.
I haven't found any Regency reference to the idea that saltpeter suppresses sexual desire. Either I just haven't found it or they hadn't thought that up yet.
Back to the ingredients for fireworks.
It's somewhat a matter of what they didn't have. Iron filings might be added to make a brighter and more intense flame, but fireworks were white and yellow. They didn't have color. It wasn't till the 1830s that folks started adding the metals that give color to fireworks. All our red, blues and greens, the Regency folks never saw.
The rockets that launched all this display looked something like these Congreve rockets — military rockets — from 1805.
Rockets for firework displays were made of paper, filled with powder. The height of accent and the timing of the explosion was carefully controlled by the tightness of the packing, the size of the case and the length of the cotton fuse. A long stick fixed the rocket to the ground, setting the flight at the proper angle.
Fixed designs like modern fire fountains shot streams of lit powder into the air from rolls of pasteboard filled with gunpowder. I'm particularly impressed with this picture from the mid-Eighteenth Century that shows these fire fountains and the court ladies of Mohammad Shah playing with fireworks. Brave ladies.
Another fixed display was a spherical 'sun'.
"In the centre of the block of the sun drive a spindle on which put a small hexagonal wheel whose cases must be filled with the same charge as the cases of the sun…a sun thus made is called a Brilliant Sun because the wood work is intierly covered with fire from the wheel to the middle so there appears nothing but sparks of a brilliant fire."
For the entry of Louis XIII into Lyon in 1623, fireworkers constructed a huge artificial lion with fire bursting from its jaw.
Fireworks were spectacle, display, public celebration. In 1814, in a jubilee in celebration of peace in London —
"The senses were next astonished and enchanted with a pacific exhibition of those tremendous instruments of destruction invented by colonel Congreve. Some notion even of their terrible power might be formed from the display of the night, and their exceeding beauty could be contemplated, divested of its usual awful associations. Each rocket contains in itself a world of smaller rockets: as soon as it is discharged from the gun it bursts, and flings aloft in the air innumerable parcels of flame, brilliant as the brightest stars: the whole atmosphere was illuminated by a delicate blue light, which threw an air of inchantment over the trees and lawns, and made even the motley groups of universal London become interesting as an assembly in romance."
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