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Roman candle

A kind of firework, generally held in the hand, characterized by the continued emission of a multitude of sparks, and the ejection, at regular intervals, of brilliant stars, which are thrown upward as they become ignited. — Webster, 1882

“I have used the word ‘beautiful’ until it has no meaning…” – Laura Ingalls Wilder, letter dated August 29, 1915


In West From Home, there’s a letter dated August 29, 1915, in which Laura describes the fireworks and light display she and Rose had just seen in San Francisco. “I have used the word ‘beautiful’ until it has no meaning, but what other word can I use?” Rose instructs Laura to tell Almanzo that “there was never anything like them in the world except those Roman candles you got for her the last Fourth of July we were in De Smet. They surpassed them, she says.”

Photo of fireworks display at right is from the Charles C. Moore albums of Panama Pacific International Exposition views, published in 1915.

I don’t have much memory of Fourth of July fireworks during my childhood. I remember running around the back yard with a sparkler or two, and my mother running around after us to collect the hot wires. I once embarrassed my siblings by ordering a dessert called a “Satellite Sparkler” at Howard Johnson’s. It was a scoop of chocolate chip ice cream with three or four candy canes stuck in it, brought to the table with a lighted sparkler on top. Chocolate chip has been my favorite ice cream ever since, sparkler or no.

Roman candles are the cardboard tubes you hold and a series of explosions shoot balls of fire which explode into stars in the sky. I had to look up how they were made — a long paper tube is sealed with bentonite (clay), then a lifting charge is added (gunpowder). A pyrotechnic star goes next, then a dusting of black powder and a load of delay powder (I haven’t a clue as to what those two are, but since I’ll never make my own fireworks, I won’t worry about it). The recipe says to “repeat until loaded,” but again, I haven’t a clue where you start repeating from.

The color of the exploding stars is created by using different chemicals for different colors:
Red – Strontium Nitrate or Strontium Carbonate
Orange – Calcium Chloride or Hydrated Calcium Sulphate
Yellow – Charcoal, Iron and Carbon, Sodium Nitrate, or Cryolite
White – Aluminum, Magnesium, or Titanium
Green – Barium Chloride
Blue – Copper Chloride
Purple – mixing compounds that create red and blue

Next time you shoot off a few Roman candles on the Glorious Fourth, remember Rose’s last Fourth of July in De Smet and what a great dad Almanzo Wilder was. Carrie and Grace may have been brought a string of firecrackers from a celebration in De Smet, but they were a freebie from Lawyer Barnes.


Roman Candle (WFH August 29, 1915)