We’re always told to have a “safe and happy Fourth,” which seems a bit ominous. Why wouldn’t it be safe?
Oh, right. Explosives.
No one in the past 50 years or so has likely wished you a “safe and sane Fourth,” but that’s something you would have heard a lot back in the day.
In the 1920s and ’30s, a scan of the newspapers on July 5th revealed a country that couldn’t celebrate its nation’s birthday without a “Grim Harvest” on the highways and careless use of pyrotechnics. The headlines were rather startling.
“5 LOSE LIVES ON 4TH” screamed the Minneapolis Star on July 5, 1926, in a type size usually reserved for the start or end of a war. The details in the story were as gruesome as the headline was large. It told how four people died by drowning, one when fireworks ignited her dress. The same story also included the two boys who ended up in the hospital when homemade bombs went off prematurely, and a girl who was injured when someone threw a firecracker out a car window and she picked it up.
It seemed worse in 1927, when the July 5th headline in the Star read “SCORES KILLED, 800 INJURED.” That was nationwide, not just in Minnesota, and included people trampled and killed when a fireworks show in Des Plaines, Ill., started a forest fire and a “disastrous Holiday” in St. Louis, where 352 suffered fireworks injuries.
A year later, the news was just as bad, judging by the Star’s “200 KILLED OVER FOURTH” headline. Again, the paper doesn’t mention any fatalities in Minnesota, but does mention 18 children in Minneapolis who were burned by fireworks.
In the early years of the 20th century, Twin Cities civic leaders started promoting a “Safe and Sane Fourth.” According to a Minneapolis Morning Tribune story on June 2, 1910, the phrase was originated here by a chapter of the Elks. “Fireworks dealers do not object to idea of conserving life and limb,” the headline noted. The campaign may have convinced a few people not to do stupid things with gunpowder, but it had its work cut out for it.
A July 4, 1937, Star front page headline intoned “Death Takes No July 4 Holiday,” and recounted a national death toll of 478. A front-page story in the same paper told of a 19-year-old who was in the clink for 24 hours after he threw a firecracker under a car driven by a couple of deputy sheriffs. Duly chastened, he reportedly urged other boys to “have a safe and sane Fourth.”
As the years passed, the annual July 5th reports of the holiday toll story got smaller and smaller, as cars and roads got safer and fireworks became more controlled. And the idea that July 4 was a grim time of national slaughter abated. The phrase “safe and sane” still popped up in ads into the ’60s, but eventually became “safe and happy.”
Close, but not quite the same.
The modern day Minnesotan who leans over too close to inspect the lit fuse on some Wisconsin-bought cannon shell may be happy, but not — well, you know.