Glenn Uminowicz - July 2007
Sacrificed at the Altar of the Goddess of Gunpowder
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
This terrible Goddess of Gunpowder, like the heathen deity Moloch, demanded human victims. Upon her bloody altars the maimed and killed were piled in gory heaps. But thank heaven patriotic people are turning away from the red Goddess to offer their oblations to the Goddess of Common Sense. We are coming to believe in a “safe and sane Fourth.”
From the Frderick Daily News July 2,1910
In the early 20th century, Americans worried over the day annually devoted to celebrating their independence. In the early years of the republic, the Fourth of July outdid in importance any other holiday on the calendar, even Christmas.
In Easton before the Civil War, for example, July 4th was a “day of general visiting,” as all the stores and offices closed down. In the afternoon, a prominent lawyer read the Declaration of Independence on the courthouse lawn and local orators delivered speeches. Refreshment tables of ice cream, pies and candies were spread about. In addition to lemonade, “other beverages as refreshing and certainly more conducive to loosen the tongues of the speakers were easily obtainable.” Perhaps because of the latter, a “noticeable increase in joviality” took place as the day grew longer. As evening approached, “the crude fireworks of that period excited many comments.”
By the early 20th century, however, excitement, noise and smoke made the “Glorious Fourth” a troubled holiday. On July 5, 1908, the Washington Post ran a front page accounting of the nationwide carnage that occurred the day before. Twenty-seven people lost their lives directly from fireworks or the resulting fires. Five hundred and thirty-two fireworks related injuries were reported and revelers discharging firearms accidentally shot one hundred and thirty victims. The grand total of those sacrificed to the Goddess of Gunpowder stood at forty-eight dead and eleven hundred and twenty-four wounded.
By 1908, accounts such as the one above were common. In 1903, the Journal of the American Medical Association began the practice of publishing an annual Fourth of July casualty list. National revulsion grew, as year after year the cumulative death toll mounted. In response, the Playground Association of America launched a campaign for a “Safe and Sane Fourth” in 1909.
The campaign quickly drew support from police, fire officials and physicians who treated “patriotic tetanus” (lockjaw) that developed in infected wounds caused by fireworks. A receptive constituency favoring a Safe and Sane Fourth existed on the Eastern Shore. In 1908, Denton’s Fire Marshall warned of the dangers of children playing with fireworks. He insisted that giving youngsters explosives taught them disrespect for the law rather than patriotism. By 1912, Easton, Federalsburg and Ridgely all boasted “Safe and Sane” Fourth of July celebrations.
Participation in the national Safe and Sane Fourth movement by Eastern Shore communities proved a bit surprising. Tales of the carnage reported nationwide were not often found in Eastern Shore newspapers. In 1888, for example, an Easton newspaper reported, “Wednesday was July 4th Independence Day. Yet it was more like Sunday than anything else. The weather was cool and pleasant, and those who remained at home enjoyed themselves in a quiet way. Business was suspended and a large number of young folks and others went with the Easton Band to Oxford. A game of Base Ball was played in the morning.”
In the 1880s, the River View House in Oxford hosted a Fourth of July “social hop” and log canoe races began in St. Michaels. In 1907, Ridgely staged an “old-time Fourth of July celebration,” featuring a baseball game, a coronet band concert followed by a vaudeville show, and a community fireworks display.
Actions, however, spoke louder than words. As part of the Safe and Sane Fourth campaign, local town governments began to ban the private use of fireworks. Easton passed such an ordinance in 1912. Three years later, the local newspaper championed a subscription drive to fund a municipal fireworks display, arguing that the town “does not offer any substitute to the boys, who are tempted to resort to a surreptitious acquaintanceship with the joys of sky rockets, Roman candles, and spinning wheels.” The fact that citizens enthusiastically backed the subscription drive for municipal fireworks serves as a pretty good indicator that some local boys had succumbed to temptation and gained some familiarity with sky rockets.
The 1915 celebration in Easton illustrated why the Safe and Sane Fourth movement proved such a success. The town’s mayor, the superintendent of schools, and the county representative to the Children’s Aid Society all quickly jumped on the Safe and Sane bandwagon. The Children’s Aid worker admitted that fireworks held some attraction but warned against their inherent dangers. She testified:
When I used to hear talk of doing away with the old-time celebration of the Fourth with fireworks, I used to think it was a kind of foolish fad. But I have changed my mind entirely. It was my misfortune to see one boy’s thumb blown off his hand and another boy’s eye put out by these explosives they sell for holiday celebrations.
In 1915, a parade, picnic lunches, and the greatest “pyrotechnical celebration” that Easton had ever witnessed marked the Glorious Fourth. These activities illustrated the goals of Safe and Sane reformers to create a more restful, family-centered, and quiet holiday. The celebration also reflected anxieties about immigration and potential class warfare heightened by the outbreak of the First World War. Easton’s mayor announced that the town would participate in National Americanization Day activities.
In the early 20th century, east coast business and civic leaders concerned with the rise of trade unionism promoted the inculcation of the English language and American civic ideals among the immigrant population, particularly those from Southern and Eastern Europe. The North American Civic League for Immigrants served as the initial vehicle for their campaign. In 1915, through the National Americanization Day Committee (NADC), plans were drawn to make July 4th a day to highlight relations between immigrant and native-born Americans. The NADC encouraged creating opportunities to rejoice in the virtues of acquiring American citizenship. The committee stressed the need for proper preparation for naturalization, especially on the need to learn English. ‘English Language First’ was a key slogan.
In Easton in 1915, recently naturalized citizens joined new native voters as guests of honor at a “citizenship reception.” One year later, Dr. Henry Davies, Rector of Christ Church, articulated the ethnic and class implications inherent in such an activity in a newspaper editorial. He wrote:
There are those who tell us that patriotism is at a low ebb; that the hyphenated citizen acknowledges a divided allegiance, which I believe is exaggerated and largely the product of the inevitable differences of opinion on the merits of the European war. At the same time, it is not open to question by any loyal American, whether native born or naturalized, that we can ill-afford to let any opportunity slip to tighten the ties that bind our hearts to the principles of liberty, equality, and humanity which the fathers of the American republic died to win. Hence, I find myself in the heartiest sympathy with the effort which is to be made to exalt Independence Day, to emphasize our common allegiance to the flag.
For Davies, the Fourth of July represented the “touchstone and standard of essential Americanization.” He insisted that “divided allegiance is impossible in the American conception of the Sate.” On the other hand, he warned that dollars and profits should never be more highly esteemed than character and community service. When attention is diverted from high aims, he wrote, “Class hatreds and fear are then generated and where these exist there always lurks weakness.” Almost a century ago, this Eastern Shore minister argued that a Safe and Sane America required immigrants and native-born citizens to share a common allegiance. For the wealthiest Americans, chasing profits should never trump the “desire to serve the true welfare of our fellow-men.” Dr. Davies offered something to truly celebrate on the Glorious Fourth.