Although the first reports of the use of fireworks for celebrations and festivals in China date back as far as the 7th century, displays of fireworks did not begin to gain popularity in Europe until the mid-17th century. In 1706 Amédée-François Frézier published his Traité des feux d’artice pour le spectacle (“Treatise on Fireworks”), the first work to focus on fireworks for recreational and ceremonial use, rather than military applications.
The biggest fireworks festival in Britain is Guy Fawkes Night, originally known as Gunpowder Treason Day, which commemorates the events of 5th November 1605 when Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were arrested for placing explosives beneath the Houses of Parliament. As thanksgiving for the failure of the plot, King James I permitted the public to celebrate the day with bonfires and pyrotechnics, a tradition which has now continued in this country for over 400 years.
Manuals such as Robert Jones’ A New Treatise on Artificial Fireworks (1765, revised 1776) and The Art of Making Fireworks (revised 1813), both held here in Special Collections, allowed people to create their own fireworks displays. By carefully following the step-by-step instructions for refining salt-petre to produce gunpowder, enterprising readers could fashion their own “sky-rockets”, “flaming stars”, “Chinese fountains”, “fulminating balls” and even “a yew tree of brilliant fire”. They just had to remember, remember to put the candles out first!