Europeans have been setting off fireworks for centuries, not against ghosts but for fun

Europeans have been setting off fireworks for centuries, not against ghosts but for fun

It doesn’t help dear mother: our use of fireworks is centuries old and goes back to the Eighty Years’ War or even further. The people of the intangible heritage can fully focus on it, following the carbide. On the other hand, the use of fireworks was far from typically Dutch, which makes a difference. And it was not limited to New Year’s Eve either, fireworks used to be shot off at every party.

All of Europe set off fireworks all year round, but not at all before 1300 because there was no gunpowder here at that time and without gunpowder it is not possible. Nothing not ‘already-the-Romans’, Wodan, Yule and what have you. Fireworks have never been used in Europe to drive away evil spirits. Well, in China, the country of origin, you can ask the Chinese.

Gunpowder and fireworks came to Europe along trade routes à la Marco Polo. Transport by sea, as well documented by the nineteenth-century shipping lists for the route between China and Sinkapur and the Dutch East Indies, only developed later.

That’s the big picture. Details proved difficult to find last week. The national use of fireworks on New Year’s Eve is poorly described. Jan ter Gouw noted in his book about ‘popular entertainment’ (1871) that there was ‘shooting’ on New Year’s Eve, but according to him that was with shooting guns: snapcocks, canisters and pistols and sometimes even small cannons that were kept in the attic. Catharina van de Graft left it open in her study on ‘folk customs’ (1947). When it struck twelve o’clock on December 31, you could hear ‘exploding shots’ that the new year was arriving, she wrote. No more. Even the Meertens Institute, which has investigated almost every Dutch peculiarity, conveniently refers to publications in the press on its ‘fireworks’ site. Those don’t help much.

The wealthy bourgeoisie

The use of fireworks has always been for fun here in Holland, that’s for sure. But there were two kinds of fun, far apart in place and time and appreciation, and having only gunpowder in common. The fact that this is not generally recognized is because the two have gradually merged.

First of all, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were fireworks shows that were presented by professional artificial fireworks, sometimes at the request of the upper class who had something to celebrate, but more often on their own initiative. In the latter case, you had to pay for the performance – ladies half price, children even less – but you could also count on a total package of illumination, music and refreshments. The artificial fireworks were usually discussed complimentarily in the newspapers, especially if a famous fireworker such as the Venetian Paolo Chiarini had been involved. Or if the show had attracted royal guests.

The performances had as little to do with folk customs and popular entertainment as the air shows did with Montgolfières. However, there was also use of fireworks that was more in line with cat clubbing and eel pulling. That was the throwing of firecrackers, firecrackers, swarmers, hissers and spinners by ‘Dutch boys’ from the country’s ‘most populous neighborhoods’. Descriptions of this only ended up in the newspaper if it had gotten out of hand or if the kindness had been forbidden in advance. But they make a surprisingly modern impression: the firecrackers preferably went in the direction of ladies and horses, ended up under and in carriages, and so on. Once the fun was over, others continued to spend a long time extinguishing and amputating.

No one seems to have gotten around to a proper analysis of this type of entertainment yet. Could the boys from the most populated neighborhoods simply afford the firecrackers and firecrackers? How did they light it without matches? Who supplied the good stuff, where did it come from? Ter Gouw and Van de Graft et al. left it alone.

Technical brochures

The Delpher newspaper archive shows that many fireworks were for sale in stores, but it is unknown whether Dutch manufacture was supplied there. It could well be. There were plenty of technical brochures that described the manufacture of fireworks in detail and in pure Dutch. And according to the History of Technology in the Netherlands There were eight fireworks companies here in 1819, although they mainly supplied military fireworks. It seems a bit much for the Dutch armed forces.

You get the feeling that there is uncertainty about what was meant by a fireworks factory in earlier times. Maybe it was just the workshop of the art fireworker, the place where he prepared the pieces for the shows. The workshop in Alphen aan den Rijn of the Brabant pharmacist/artificial fireworker John Loeff was described in 1889 as a wooden building that could be used for ‘filling and assembling art fireworks.’ The powder would be supplied in batches of a maximum of 5 or 10 kilograms. Loeff called his warehouse, from which the Leiden fireworks factory Kat would later emerge, the Kunstvuurwerk-Factory ‘Le Vulcan’. The Utrecht bookseller/fireworker Gerrit Ruysch, who in addition to books also sold small fireworks on the Mariaplaats, also called the workshop above the bookshop a Fireworks Factory around 1850, later even a Pyrotechnic Factory. Ruysch sold firecrackers for one cent each. Seven hits: five for four pence.

And then you had the Frisian merchants MJ Schuurmans and P. de Vries, Pz (flower bulbs, Gouda pipes, eau de cologne) who also gave fireworks shows and started selling firecrackers from their shops in Leeuwarden around 1835. It is likely that they eventually made them themselves, as the famous JN Schuurmans – Leeuwarden fireworks factory was later established here. But the how, what and for how much money still has to be figured out.