Arts and Leisure

The July 3rd Bonfire Craze of the Early 20th Century

Setting a bonfire in celebrationswas a longstanding New England tradition. In Boston, bonfires lit up Pope Night and  the celebration of the capture of the Fortress at Louisbourg in 1758.

A July 3 bonfire in New England. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

A July 3 bonfire in New England. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

But then in the first half of the 20th century, bonfires spread like -- well, wildfire. Enormous bonfires, months in the planning, capped off Fourth of July celebrations in New England.

Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Unidentified bonfire pyre. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

“It was a custom observed from time immemorial for the towns-boys to have a bonfire on the Square on the midnight before the Fourth,” wrote Thomas Bailey Aldrich in The Story of a Bad Boy, a fictionalized biography published in 1870 about his boyhood in Portsmouth, N.H.

Shortly after he signed the Declaration of Independence, John Adams predicted bonfires would be part of an annual ‘great anniversary festival.’

It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.

Bonfires and Gunfire

After the Civil War, Independence Day festivities grew increasingly rowdy. By the turn of the century, Fourth of July celebrations got dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that they killed hundreds of children each year.

Small boys set off random bonfires that ignited the neighbors’ houses. A Fourth of July firecracker in 1866 started the Great Portland Fire in Maine. The conflagration, the worst ever in the United States, burned 1800 buildings, left 10,000 homeless and killed two. Five years later, the Great Chicago Fire eclipsed the Portland fire.

Toy guns caused even more trouble. Children used them to shoot blank cartridges, which pierced the skin. The lesions resulted in tetanus, the leading cause of Independence Day-related death.

Quincy, Mass., bonfire pyre. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Quincy, Mass., bonfire pyre. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Safe and Sane 4th

The campaign for a Safe and Sane Fourth promoted less dangerous activities – like carefully supervised public bonfires.

Town leaders liked the giant bonfires because they replaced the smaller fires set by juvenile pyromaniacs. In 1914, for example, the Springfield Republican reported firefighters responded to 39 fires on July 4. Fireworks started 10, but bonfires started 22.

Other cities, however, had already started to crack down on dangerous Independence Day activities. In 1911, for example, every city in Connecticut had declared for a 'noiseless' Fourth of July celebration, according to the Norwalk Hour. They had joined the Safe and Sane movement to make the holiday safe, but hardly exciting.

To make the Fourth of July safe but not boring, New Haven allowed a dozen great bonfires to be set under police supervision. Children collected materials for the fires for weeks, according to the newspaper.

By the 1920s, the bonfire craze had caught on. A Boston Globe headline in 1929 read, '16 HUGE BONFIRES WELCOME FOURTH Flare Forth at Midnight in Boston and Nearby Communities.' The Globe reported 200,000 had gathered to see the fires in Columbus Park.

Quincy, Mass., advertised its bonfire in a 1948 edition of The Billboard.

quincy

New England towns competed to light the biggest bonfires on the night of July 3.

The Gallows Hill bonfire pyre. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The Gallows Hill bonfire pyre. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

World Champion Bonfire

Salem, Mass., usually built the biggest bonfire.

Salem, in fact, was the world champion. At midnight on Gallows Hill, burning rags set the huge wooden pyramid aflame. With it came the announcement, “the night has turned into the morning of a new year of liberty.” Tens of thousands of people stood and watched.

Volunteers from the Gallows Hill Bonfire Association spent weeks bringing materials to the site. They then stacked barrels on top of casks on top of hogsheads in as many as 40 tiers. A minister writing in 1908 estimated the tower rose to 135 feet.

In 1930, a news crew came to film Salem’s amazing bonfire. (To see newsreel footage of the Gallows Hill bonfire, click here.) Life Magazine ran a feature on it in 1949. (See pictures from the article here.)

The bonfire craze began to taper off in the 1960s for several reasons. Better, cheaper fireworks became more available and corrugated cardboard replaced wooden casks, barrels and hogsheads.

 With thanks to Streets of Salem and The Atlantic. This story was updated in 2019.

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Rob Mackiewicz

    July 3, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    Assonet, MA. has one and fireworks this evening

  2. Louise Gonsalves

    July 3, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    That’s huge!!!!!!

  3. Dana McPhee

    July 3, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    A little ironic, strangely – these Gallows Hill photos appear to depict the top of the hill, (Hanson St.), where the people accused of witchcraft were probably actually hung, not at the hillside, where the main part of the park is. To add to the irony, John Adams was interested in the Witchcraft Trials, and visited here before being President. He postulated the top of the hill was the location, while later helping to add bonfires to Independence Day celebrations…

  4. Randy Stacy

    July 3, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Ashby MA hast there’s tonight and. It’s around 40 ft tall

  5. Bill Carlson

    July 4, 2014 at 7:03 am

    What is interesting people seeing this may think of the Wtichacraft Burnings that never took place in Salem. Hanging was the punishment for witchcraft in Salem.

  6. Bill Carlson

    July 4, 2014 at 7:03 am

    What is interesting people seeing this may think of the Wtichacraft Burnings that never took place in Salem. Hanging was the punishment for witchcraft in Salem.

  7. Kat Allenby

    July 4, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Salem. MA

  8. RoseAnn Simoncini Prevost

    July 4, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Rockport, MA still does this!

  9. New England Genealogy

    July 4, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    shared

  10. Michael Beaudry

    July 4, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    The things towns use to do…

  11. Paul Mitchell

    July 4, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    My father was born in Danvers and my mom in Salem. I remember them taking me to a Bonfire but I don’t remember where. It was big!

  12. Mary R Mosteiro

    July 3, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    When my children were young, we saw a bonefire and fireworks in Little Compton, RI, usually the day before the 4th.

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