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A Safe and Sane Fourth of July

( Originally Published 1927 )


(From The Forum, August, 1909.)

A LITTLE more than a year ago the Century Magazine contained a vigorous and convincing article by Mrs. Isaac L. Rice, entitled " Our Barbarous Fourth." It was a protest against a condition of affairs in the United States which had long attracted attention but which no one, up to that time, had criticised in such emphatic terms. " The grim statistics of the Fourth of July," said the article, " probably furnish a sadder commentary of human folly than that afforded by any other celebration in the world."

It is true that a few thoughtful people had in more or less nonchalant manner observed the terrible toll of death and injury which the evil celebration of the day demanded. Quite a number of newspapers — notably the Chicago Tribune—were questioning the wisdom of a method which in one day had resulted in the death of 164 people, and the injury of nearly 5,000. " How can any satisfaction," asked the New York Tribune, " be taken in the perversion of a holiday to purposes of disorder and destruction, and how can any pride be felt in methods of observance which inevitably condemn hundreds — if not thousands — to be shot, burned, maimed, and otherwise disfigured and tortured in propitiation of the great god of senseless uproar? " The St. Paul Pioneer Press deplored the fact that a day which ought to be the most enjoyable in the calendar had become a day of general carnage; while the New York Commercial characterized the popular celebration as ridiculous and senseless.

Notwithstanding these occasional utterances of truth, which indicated a growing sentiment, the fact is, that at the time of the appearance of " Our Barbarous Fourth " there was only one city in the country wherein any curb had been placed upon the insensate and reckless custom of observing the Fourth of July with dynamite and gunpowder. The cemeteries and the hospitals were claiming their victims and yet no one in authority seemed courageous enough to call a halt for fear of being charged with lack of patriotism. I believe, however, that the article in question appeared at the psychological moment. It was so straightforward in its presentation 0f the facts, so earnest in its appeal and so logical in its assertion that there were numerous sensible ways of celebrating our national holiday, that it made a profound impression everywhere. At any rate, the fact is, that before that article appeared only one city in the country had prohibited the sale and explosion of fireworks, while within a short period after it had been printed the authorities in several cities took radical action along the lines therein suggested. It is no exaggeration to say that within the next ten years the old barbarous Fourth of July will have entirely disappeared, and it is also within the bounds of accurate statement to add that the one greatest individual factor in accomplishing the much-needed reform is the author of the Century article.

All this is by way of preface to the fact that the experiment of a safe and sane Fourth of July was tried this year in the National Capital; and in the belief that its details will prove of general interest, they are here-with recorded. If, as now seems to be the case, we are on the verge of a revolution in the customs which have been in vogue for half a century, the methods by which the change is to be accomplished are not with-out their value and significance.

The celebration of the national holiday in the capital a year ago had been marked by so many accidents and fires that some protest against the indiscriminate use of fireworks was uttered, and the Commissioners who govern the city declared themselves in published inter-views in favor of a safer and saner observance of the day. No definite action was taken, however, until last November, when the question became acute be-cause hundreds of dealers in fireworks in the city were naturally anxious to know whether they would be permitted to handle explosives. Inquiry of other cities brought forth the fact that Cleveland had already enacted an ordinance forbidding the sale and discharge of fireworks, and a copy of this ordinance was secured. In Washington, as ought to be generally known, there is no common council or board of aldermen, but all regulations governing the municipality are promulgated by the three Commissioners under authority delegated to them by Congress. The question whether Washington should undertake the experiment of a non-explosive Fourth rested, therefore, with these three men, and it did not take them long to reach their conclusion. One of them had, more than a year previously, formally expressed his sympathy with the 0bject sought to be attained by the opponents of the barbarous Fourth, and his colleagues were, happily, of the same opinion. In November, therefore, eight months before the arrival of the holiday, the following regulation was enacted:

" No firecracker, squib, or other fireworks of any kind shall be sold and delivered, discharged or set off within the city of Washington, or the fire limits of the District of Columbia, or in the more densely populated portions of said District ; provided, however, on occasions of public celebration and exhibition fireworks may be discharged or set off on special permits issued by the Commissioners defining the time, place, storage and such other conditions to be observed in reference thereto as they may deem necessary to the public safety. No gun, air gun, rifle, air rifle, pistol, revolver, or other firearm, cannon or torpedo shall be discharged or set off within the city of Washing-ton, or the fire limits of the District of Columbia, with-out a special written permit therefor from the Major and Superintendent of Police, nor within five hundred yards of the Potomac River, Eastern Branch, or Anacostia River, Rock Creek, or any public road, highway, school-house, building or buildings, shed, barn, outhouse, public park, reservation, graveyard or burial place, playground, golf course, tennis court, picnic ground, camp ground, or any place where people are accustomed to congregate, inclosure for stock, railroad track, outside of such fire limits for the District of Columbia, without the written consent of the owner or occupant thereof and a special written permit from the Major and Superintendent of Police."

No law or regulation can, however, be effective unless it is sustained by public sentiment. The Commissioners were fortunate in securing the voluntary and enthusiastic support of the members of the Board of Trade and the Chamber of Commerce, the representative local organizations, and, in general, the citizenship of the capital was favorably disposed to the new order of things. Committees were formed for the purpose of providing two patriotic public entertainments, one in the morning to consist of the reading of the Declaration of Independence and appropriate addresses, and the other to include a fine display of fireworks at night upon the ellipse south of the White House. The funds for the latter were promptly supplied by public subscription, and the affair was managed most success-fully by a volunteer committee, no less than forty thousand people witnessing the display. In the mean-time, the residents of various sections of the District undertook to uphold sympathetically the Commissioners by devising their own collective celebrations. In Cleveland Park, an attractive suburban district, there was a public meeting with a programme of fireworks handled by experts, while Bloomingdale, another well-settled section, enjoyed a day of athletic sports, speeches and aerial fireworks. In short, the people of the District of Columbia cheerfully accepted the proclamation, which was issued by the Commissioners, inviting attention to the police regulations which had been adopted " to provide against the dangers incident to the manner of observing the Fourth of July and Christmas, which previously prevailed," and appealing " to the people of the District of Columbia heartily to second their efforts by 0bserving and counseling the observance of these regulations."

Nor were the entertainments already mentioned the only forms of celebration. The Washington Post conceived the idea of an automobile floral-flag parade, and this event proved to be a genuine spectacular and artistic success. There were over a hundred motor cars in line, and the decorations were extremely novel and pleasing. One automobile was reconstructed into an accurate representation of the Confederate ram Merrimac, and was manned by young men in sailor costumes ; another was converted into a yacht with masts and sails ; another was a floral boat apparently drawn by an enormous white swan ; and still another was in the form of a pergola, decorated with wistaria vines and blossoms. An electric machine which elicited the applause of the thousands who lined the route of parade was apparently a huge wicker basket of pink roses, in the center of which and surmounted by a canopy of roses was seated the lady who operated the car. Another electric machine was a symphony in red, white and blue. Altogether, the event proved to be a most unique and beautiful celebration, and the committee of artists who awarded the cups and 0ther prizes, valued at $1,500, was confronted by a most difficult task of selection. When it is considered that the affair was the first of its kind in the National Capital, and was merely suggested as one form of rational enjoyment, its successful execution occasioned deserved felicitation, and when it is repeated next year, as it will be, the national holiday will be made literally a day 0f delight.

The real value, however, of the experiment in the National Capital still remains to be recorded. Instead of a long list of dead and injured, there was not a single gunpowder accident in the city, and the two minor alarms of fire were not occasioned by explosives. The contrast between the recent Fourth of July celebration and those of previous years, is strikingly shown in the following figures :

Number of persons treated at local hospitals for injuries from explosives :

HOSPITAL. July 4, July 5,

1908. 1909.

Emergency 25 o Casualty 6 o Freedmen's 5 0 Georgetown 1o 0 Providence o 0 Homeopathic 52 0 Children's 2 0 Totals 104 0

Before the Fourth there was some division of opinion as to the outcome; after the Fourth the public sentiment was practically unanimous as to the humanity and wisdom of a safe and sane celebration. This' sentiment found editorial expression in the daily news-papers, and those communities which are considering the advisability of abolishing the dangerous customs of the past, might with great profit read these comments. They are here incorporated almost in their entirety :

Washington Herald:

Having celebrated the Fourth of July in a safe and sane manner, it is reasonably sure that Washington will not hereafter entertain the thought of going back to the stereotyped, unsafe, and insane way of observing the anniversary of the country's independence. It is true that the day, for the most part, was so quiet as to be almost Sabbathlike; but, thanks to an ideally delightful spell of weather, every hour, from dawn until the night festivities concluded, was full of wholesome enjoyment. A welcome relief it was, indeed, to be spared the affliction of the ear-splitting firecracker and toy cannon nuisance and kindred evils that made other Fourths so hideous. And a more welcome relief still is the knowledge to-day that Washington, at least, has not a long hospital list of maimed and suffering victims of the reckless use of explosives.

Washington Times:

On the day following the Fourth, it will be difficult to find many people who will not give their approval to the innovation. Nobody's home was burned up, nobody succeeded in killing himself or his neighbor; there are no incipient cases of lockjaw under observation. The tendency to those other forms of disorder which grow out of indulgence in the cup that cheers—and perhaps deafens — was less marked than ever before. The police and the hospitals alike had an easy time of it. Not a single accident worthy the name, of the distinctive variety which has made Independence Day an occasion of carnage and terror, took place in Washington. That is a remarkable record.

Safety and sanity, in short, vindicated themselves to perfection. Promiscuous noise was simply impossible because of the strict prohibition of the sale and use of fireworks and other abominations in the racket-making line. Altogether, it was a glorious day, and it is sincerely to be hoped that it will come in similar fashion once per annum, and in time lead people to a cheerful ability honestly to rejoice that their country did attain its freedom.

Papers in unsafe and insane communities please copy.

Washington Star:

After yesterday's experience it is doubtful whether Washington will ever return to the old customs of Independence Day celebrations. The safe and sane " Fourth idea was carried out in a manner to please practically the entire community, to give some form of entertainment to the greatest possible number throughout the day, with-out contributing a single accident of any kind to the records.

Taken in detail, yesterday's celebration features were calculated to please all classes. For those who wished to dwell seriously upon the patriotic aspect of the occasion there was the open-air meeting, where exercises appropriate to the day were held. For the children there was no lack of amusement, with the daylight fireworks diverting them on three different occasions. The floral auto-mobile parade was a novelty that drew large numbers to the line, while the day was appropriately closed with an exceptional exhibition of fireworks, concluding with the illumination of Pennsylvania Avenue.

An ideal day in overhead conditions, yesterday afforded the best opportunity to try the new idea of Independence Day celebration. In consequence of all the arrangements and restrictions there was a remarkable lack of noise from morning till night. There were no fires and the hospital ambulance was less busy even than on ordinary occasions. The policemen had an easy time, being occupied chiefly in preserving lines at the various points of congregation. There was a noteworthy lack of public intoxication. In short, Washington demonstrated that it can enjoy itself in a dignified, decent manner.

With the experience of yesterday in mind, the authorities and citizens who engage in such enterprises can proceed next year to organize an Independence Day celebration that will be even better. It has been proved that it is possible to stop the promiscuous discharge of firecrackers and other forms of explosives. This is in itself an immense advantage. There is no reason to doubt the ability of the Commissioners to maintain order in the same manner next year. It may be, suggested that the. 1910 programme should include more public music of a patriotic character at intervals during the day and that the chief feature of the occasion be some form of historic pageant.

In the face of this splendid and sensible record, it is appalling to read the reports from other cities. The death of Arthur Granville Langham, uncle of the Baroness von Sternberg, which occurred in Louisville, as the result of the explosion of a cannon cracker, was especially tragic, but the occurrences in other municipalities are none the less sad because the victims were not as prominent in social and financial circles. Here are some of the figures :

NEW YORK. Five killed, i97 injured by fireworks, 82 injured by pistols, 23 injured by cannons and 3 injured by torpedoes; also, 116 fires started by explosives. Not-withstanding this list of victims, one of the most prominent New York papers remarked that New York had broken all records for a safe and sane Fourth of July.

PHILADELPHIA. Five dead, 3 fatally injured, 8 seriously injured and 420 painfully injured; 80 fires.

ST. Louis. Four dead, 205 injured.


PITTSBURG. One dead, 295 injured; fire loss, $50,000. MEMPHIS, TENN. A crippled newsboy burned to death. WHEELING, W. VA. One dead, 50 injured.

BUFFALO. Fifteen children injured, 40 fires.

BOSTON. One hundred and ten persons injured. TOLEDO. Boy's left hand necessarily amputated and a fifteen-year-old boy blinded for life.

KANSAS CITY. One death from lockjaw.

ELMIRA, N. Y. Two deaths from lockjaw. WOONSOCKET, R. I. One dead and a dozen persons injured.

Other cities, without regard to section, afford a painful repetition of casualty. It seems strange that this annual holocaust should be tolerated. There is not a civilized country in the world which pays such a fearful debt to alleged patriotism as the United States. There is no question as to the devotion of the Japanese to their country, and yet their three national holidays are not marred by sad fatalities. Germany celebrates the Emperor's birthday with the greatest enthusiasm, but without wholesale death and injury. France is patriotic, and yet France observes its festal days in a safe and sane fashion. In the City of Mexico, as the writer knows by personal experience, the celebration of Independence Day is a great popular success, and yet not one firecracker is exploded. The experiment in Washington demonstrates that dynamite and gun-powder are not essential to a thorough and patriotic enjoyment of the day. Surely the time will come when other cities will appreciate the importance of celebrating in some manner which will appropriately mark the day, and yet not leave a sanguinary trail of dead and wounded.

It goes without saying that the safe and sane method will not be departed from in the National Capital. In that city, at least, there will be an example of common sense which other municipalities might well emulate. There will be ample opportunity for the expression of patriotic sentiment, unaccompanied by death and disaster, and in less than a decade the people will look back to the ancient and barbarous customs, and won-der how they were ever tolerated for a single hour. Next year new methods of entertainment will be devised, and more consideration will be given to the children. This year the pupils of the public schools sang patriotic songs at the various gatherings, and the children enjoyed the automobile parade and the fireworks. The Fourth of July, however, is essentially Young America's day, and in any programme arranged by a municipality especial consideration should be given to the little ones. With this detail not over-looked, there will be no question of the real success 0f any Fourth of July celebration. Certainly the experiment which the National Capital has successfully inaugurated has proven worth while ; and if the example is generally followed by other cities, there will be safety and sanity everywhere, nor need the splendid fervency of our full-blooded patriotism suffer loss.

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