Despite tighter regulations, fireworks industry still booming

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Selma Times-Journal

Mike Luster has been selling fireworks for 25 years. A lot has changed since he began, mainly how much bang they pack.

Gone are the M-80s and Cherry Bombs, packed with enough explosives “to blow a finger clean off.” The industry has been regulated more closely and they’re illegal in some states. Every city and town has ordinances regulating the sale and use of fireworks, including Selma.

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The firecrackers, both then and now, are thought to have the power to fend off evil spirits and ghosts, frightened by the loud bangs. Firecrackers are used for such purposes today at most events such as births, deaths and birthdays. Chinese New Year is a particularly popular event that is celebrated with firecrackers to usher in the New Year free of the evil spirits. (See History of Fireworks.)

The sale and use of fireworks within the city limits are prohibited, but during New Year’s and the Fourth of July, airborne color-coordinated sparkles, crackling and booms can be seen and heard all over town.

Luster operates Crazy Bill’s fireworks on Highway 80 E., outside the city limits. Business had been slow, but he said customers would be coming in today and Saturday buying a variety of fireworks to bring in the New Year with.

“The products have changed, and so has the packaging,” said Luster. “But the demand is still there. Children and adults love fireworks.”

Firecrackers and sky rockets are the most popular. If they like firecrackers, Crazy Bill’s has them by the pile. If they really like firecrackers, a roll about the size of a car tire, 16,000 can be taken home for $69.99.

The companies producing fireworks spend more time on marketing their products, which is evidenced by the themes and eye-catching packages. New this year is Megatron2, and the Golden Anniversary Black Cat. These aren’t for the beginner. At a cost of $49.99, these are complete fireworks shows themselves, sending balls of colored fire 65 feet in the air, which burst open into colorful patterns to the sound of ooohs and ahhhs of spectators below.

history of fireworks

Fireworks are big business, and their journey to present day has a remarkable past.

The most prevalent legend has it that fireworks, originated in China some 2,000 years ago, were discovered by accident by a Chinese cook working in a field kitchen who happened to mix charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter, all commonly found in the kitchen in those days. The mixture burned and when compressed in an enclosure – a bamboo tube – the mixture exploded.

Other sources place the discovery sometime during the Ninth century during the Song dynasty (960-1279), although this could be confusion between the discovery of gunpowder by the cook and the invention of the firecracker. Some sources suggest that fireworks may have originated in India, but in the Oct. 18, 2003, online edition of The Hindu, an Indian national newspaper, the Chinese are credited with the discovery of gunpowder.

A Chinese monk named Li Tian, who lived near the city of Liu Yang in Hunan Province, is credited with the invention of firecrackers about 1,000 years ago.

To this day the Liu Yang region of Hunan Province remains the main production area in the world for fireworks. It is important to remember the geographic origin of fireworks, because often detractors of the fireworks industry say that fireworks are produced in China to take advantage of cheap labor. But the reality is the fireworks industry existed in China long before the advent of the modern era and long before the disparity in east-west wage rates.

Marco Polo is credited with bringing the Chinese gunpowder back to Europe in the 13th century, although some accounts credit the Crusaders with bringing the black powder to Europe as they returned from their journeys.

Once in Europe, the black powder was used for military purposes, first in rockets, then in canons and guns. Italians were the first Europeans who used the black powder to manufacture fireworks. Germany was the other European country to emerge as a fireworks leader along with Italy in the 18th century. The leading American display companies are operated by families of Italian descent such as the Grucci family, Rozzi family, and Zambelli family.

The English were also fascinated with fireworks. Fireworks became very popular in Great Britain during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. William Shakespeare mentions fireworks in his works, and fireworks were so much enjoyed by the Queen herself that she created the position of “Fire Master of England.” King James II was so pleased with the fireworks display that celebrated his coronation that he knighted his Fire Master.

In the modern era, the American fireworks industry really began to influence Chinese manufacturers following President Richard Nixon’s normalization of relations with the Chinese Communist government in the early 1970s. Prior to that time, business was being done between U.S. and Chinese companies through Hong Kong brokers with little or no direct contact with mainland manufacturers.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the distribution channels in China were essentially state owned factories producing fireworks that were then exported through government owned provincial export corporations. Products produced in Hunan went through the Hunan Export Corporation, and products produced in Jiangxi went through the Jiangxi Export Corporation, and so on. During this period, factories were not required to make a profit, but rather their goal was to keep people working in a region of China where there was no real industry other than agriculture.

During the 1980s, China opened up dramatically to travel within its borders for visiting U.S. importers. This enabled the first American fireworks buyers to travel to the production regions and establish relations with Hong Kong exporters and the provincial export corporations.

In the late 1980s, consumer fireworks became the focus of intense scrutiny by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Up to this point, most of the fireworks products had old generic export corporation labels that had incorrect warning labels based on item size and performance. To correct the situation, representatives from the CPSC, American Pyrotechnics Association, and Hong Brokers Association spent 10 days in Southern China meeting with representatives from each export corporation and factory managers, on a province by province basis.

In the 1990s, economic reform continued under Chairman Jiang Zemin as Chinese factories were weaned off government funding and forced to turn a profit for the first time. It was during this period that many Provincial Export Corporation personnel left the government owned companies and were permitted to start their own.

Initially these new private companies worked through the established Hong Kong brokers to reach the U.S. market, but within a few years they were selling directly to U.S. importers.

The 1990s saw the rapid growth of private labels in order for U.S. companies to differentiate their product lines. In the 2000s, China is a basic “free for all,” with small mainland export-broker companies forming and folding each month. Additionally, separate factories are attempting to bypass historical channels and selling directly to U.S. importers. Each week American companies receive a half dozen e-mails or fax communications asking for the American companies to place orders directly with some small new and obscure factories that would like to begin exporting to the United States.

The B.J. Alan Company, parent to the Phantom Fireworks chain of retail showrooms, currently has offices in Guangzhou and Liu Yang from which team members serve as quality control and logistics monitors within China. The company’s goal is to continue to bring into the United States the best performing and safest consumer fireworks for its customers.