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