Reminisce: Lima joins ‘safe and sane Fourth’ in 1911

The Fourth of July, in the tongue-in-cheek estimation of Lima newspaperman Albert C. Truitt, just wasn’t what it once was.

“It wasn’t many years ago,” Truitt declared in a front-page article in the Lima News on July 4, 1924, “when there wasn’t a thing in the world to keep the Eagle from screaming, so to speak, and no Independence Day was started right unless all the old Civil War cannons in the county were loaded to the muzzle and fired at sunrise. … From then on until dark, firecrackers, torpedoes, bombs, firearms, pistols and even dynamite was fired off to celebrate.”

Now, Truitt wrote, “All that is left of it, as it used to be observed years ago, is the date. The safe and sane Fourth has crowded the old-time celebration off the map and with it a lot of patriotic spirit that went with the day. Prohibition finished the work. After city councils finished legislating in favor of the safe and sane idea, there was no way left to spend the Fourth, except to sleep, drink ice water, go fishing or motoring.”

Of course, the problem with all those detonations in the good old days was the carnage they wreaked. In some years around the turn of the century, as editorial writers frequently pointed out, casualties in fireworks accidents surpassed the Continental Army’s casualties at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Americans celebrating Independence Day in the late 19th century may have had more firepower than the soldiers of the Revolution.

“Between giant crackers powerful enough to blow a barrel to pieces, dynamite caps, toy cannon that blew up when the fuse was supposed to have gone out, Roman candles that backfired, skyrockets, cans of black powder, dynamite torpedoes and the like, it is a mystery how father lived to tell the tale,” Truitt wrote, referring to old men, who as boys, “took a lot of chances” on the Fourth of July.

Annually, immediately after the Fourth, newspapers tallied the carnage.

“The Fourth of July celebrations passed over in this city without any fatalities,” the Allen County Republican-Gazette wrote July 6, 1900, “but it is a wonder that no one was killed for there was an unusual degree of carelessness exhibited by persons of all ages and kinds during the day. Hundreds of men, boys, women and girls paraded the streets armed with revolvers and blank cartridges, which were fired into the faces of passersby while it was common among others to hurl firecrackers and torpedoes about without paying any attention to where they went, and in some instances, it was noticeable that lighted firecrackers and Roman candles were intentionally thrown at people.

“A dozen or more persons will be disfigured for life as a result of the so-called ‘sports,’” the newspaper added.

And so it went, year after year, despite occasional calls for a change.

“He would be a villain indeed who would wish to rob the boys of the delight of shooting off millions of dollars’ worth of fireworks on the Fourth,” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote July 5, 1895. “Still, nervous people still like to get out into the country and lie under the trees and listen to bird songs instead of shooting crackers. Babies, aged people and invalids who are in a very feeble state occasionally die as a result of the noise on the Fourth of July. Then, too, there are fires, innumerable houses are burned down and often persons perish in the terrible flames kindled by a spark from some boy’s fireworks.”

The villain appeared shortly after the turn of the century. His name was Charles Pennypacker, a lawyer, legislator and municipal leader from West Chester, Pennsylvania.

“The holiday, he insisted in 1903, was hopelessly out of control. Hundreds of people across the U.S. were dying from a mix of firework explosions and poorly shot toy guns, all in the name of celebrating their country’s founding,” Smithsonian magazine wrote in a July 2019 story titled “The 1900s movement to Make the Fourth of July Boring (but Safe).”

In a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the magazine wrote, Pennypacker “urged citizens to focus on ‘a quiet and sane observance of the Fourth’ that prioritized family gatherings.”

On July 3, 1904, the Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal reprinted Pennypacker’s speech to the citizens of West Chester suggesting alternatives to fireworks on the Fourth. “A trolley ride to the Brandywine, a quiet day under the trees, home-baked bread with lemon butter, and cake with deviled eggs may be civilized features of the day. The sweat of a harvest field is as honorable as that of a ball field. Take the good wife and all the children. Spend your money for sandwiches instead of squibs (a small firework that hisses before it explodes). The price of five skyrockets or Roman candles will buy a hammock, whose swing delights youth and old age in all lands,” he wrote.

Pennypacker’s push for reform didn’t set well with the young men who were throwing the firecrackers, some of whom gathered outside his West Chester home in July 1904, and “for at least 15 minutes the men set off explosives outside of Pennypacker’s window – all to punish the legislator for trying to reform the most patriotic holiday,” the Smithsonian wrote.

“But Pennypacker wasn’t the only American disgusted with the rowdiness of Fourth of July celebrations, and negative press coverage quickly ignited a reform movement,” according to the magazine. “Pennypacker was one member of a disparate group of lawmakers and social reformers across the U.S., who called for an end to unsupervised fireworks and explosives. Under the banner “Safe and Sane Fourth,” they insisted that Fourth of July celebrations should focus on family and picnicking, remaining free of violence.”

In 1908, after a series of fireworks accidents and lobbying by local women’s groups, Cleveland City Council voted to ban fireworks, making it, by some accounts, the country’s first Safe and Sane Fourth of July city.

“Cleveland had a safe and sane, and consequently bloodless Independence Day – and all through the prohibition of fireworks and explosives of any kind,” the Republican-Gazette marveled July 9, 1909.

Lima joined the movement three years later. “Upon request of the Daughters of the American Revolution and under suspended rules, an ordinance was passed placing rigid regulations upon the observance of next Fourth of July,” the Republican-Gazette wrote December 5, 1911. “The ban is put upon skyrockets, or fireworks, as well as guns, cannons, anvils, rifles, revolvers, pistols and air guns.” It worked.

“The safe and sane Fourth ordinance had its full effect,” the Republican-Gazette wrote July 6, 1912. “The only fireworks and explosives in the city were those under the direction of the D.A.R. at Faurot Park. Little additional activity was required of the police, no disturbances of consequence being reported. No serious accidents occurred to mar the occasion. There was but one fatality in the entire state of Ohio.”




This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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