The end of amateur fireworks displays


ON JUNE 30, 1943, a stern notice was issued by John N. Gontrum, then Maryland's Insurance Commissioner: "The use of all kinds of fireworks is prohibited under terms of a law enacted by the state legislature in 1941 and enforced for the first time last year. And no section of the state is exempt. The law prohibits the use of fireworks except for a public display in cases where a permit has been issued."

The commissioner had reason to be stern. Until 1941, the use of fireworks was thought to be a sacred right in Baltimore. But over the years, many Baltimore residents had grown less tolerant of the wide use of fireworks, especially by young children. Before the 1940s, the city had made attempts to limit the use of fireworks, but those laws were weak and ineffective. Finally, the state legislature, under public pressure, outlawed the private use of fireworks -- except for sparklers -- statewide in 1941.

On the Fourth of July -- through the 1920s and 1930s -- as dusk approached, every neighborhood in Baltimore City would come alive with the light and sound of fireworks. Almost every family would stock up on such fireworks as firecrackers, rockets, sparklers, Roman candles and the more exotic types known on the street as "torpedoes," "grenades," "signal lights," "pinwheels," "spinners" and "devil chasers." They were sold at virtually every corner grocery or hardware store in town.

On Independence Day, as darkness fell on the city, fireworks would sound throughout the streets and alleys. There were sudden and sporadic outbursts of noise, lights, cheers and approving applause. Children and adults would stand on their front lawns, proudly offering into the mix of noise and light their very own contribution to the festivities. It wasn't unusual to see a tin can flying 20 feet into the air, launched by a 3-inch firecracker set off by a 5-year-old.

But there was a sad side to it all. On July 5, year after year, the newspapers would carry the tragic news of the youngsters and adults, too, who had been injured -- some burned, some maimed, some blinded. Community groups eager for a ban on fireworks were confronted by the powerful fireworks manufacturers, which pushed for a referendum on fireworks use; they figured popular support for fireworks would prevail and save their industry.

In the end, the legislation was passed in 1941, but its enforcement was postponed until after July 4, 1941, when petitions with the required number of signatures were to be presented, seeking a referendum in the 1942 general election. The courts later found irregularities in the procedure, called off the referendum and declared the state's fireworks ban in effect.

That's the way the fireworks situation has been in the state ever since -- though it appears that some fireworks, which are thought to be "safe," are taking the law to the edge, creeping back onto counters at retail outlets.

This year, the fireworks ban marks its 54th anniversary. You can celebrate in lots of ways, but please: no fireworks.

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