Collecting fireworks memorabilia

ANTIQUES

July 04, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen

Fourth of July celebrations aren't complete without fireworks, so it's not surprising that old pyrotechnic packaging, advertising and rockets generate heated interest. Prices generally range from $20 to $200, and items with the most colorful labels command the highest prices, according to dealer Shannon Riggs. He notes that since it's illegal to sell fireworks in some states, collectors usually defuse them before trading them to avoid legal tangles or explosions.

Not all collectors are quiet about their hobby. "If it was made before 1960 and goes bang, I want it," said Dennis C. Manochio, of Saratoga, Calif., who claims to have the world's largest collection of vintage fireworks and Fourth of July memorabilia. Mr. Manochio, a third-generation fireworks chemist, and historian for the American Pyrotechnics Association, has over 10,000 items in his arsenal, including circa 1850 to 1940 toy torpedoes; pre-World War II cast-iron cap pistols (children's noisemakers); Victorian sparkler boxes (worth about $25 to $100 each); turn-of-this-century postcards ($1 to $100 each); and vintage fireworks trade catalogs, posters and banners.

Much of his cache is housed permanently in the 4th of July Americana & Fireworks Museum, part of the Lawrence County Historical Society in New Castle, Pa., long the "fireworks capital of America." Three fireworks manufacturers remain in business there. (For museum information call [412] 658-4022. Mr. Manochio can be contacted at P.O. Box 2010, Saratoga, Calif. 95070, [800] 456-5732.)

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No image so typifies America as the white-haired and bearded "Uncle Sam," dressed in a stars-and-stripes suit and top hat. The term "Uncle Sam" originated during the War of 1812, when opponents of the war used it to taunt American soldiers. "Uncle Sam" had a real-life inspiration: Samuel Wilson (1766-1854) of Troy, N.Y., a supplier of beef to the U.S. army, who marked his military crates "U.S." A newspaper reported that one of Wilson's workers was overheard joking that "U.S." stood for "Uncle Sam," and so our national symbol was born. During the war, Wilson was revered in the press as what every American aspired to be: a hard-working, devoted patriot. By the war's end, "Uncle Sam" came to symbolize the national character. Wilson received posthumous recognition from Congress in 1961.

Uncle Sam's image long has been used to sell American goods: By the mid-19th century, it commonly appeared on trade cards )) to promote American production around the world.

Over the years, however, much patriotic ephemera featuring Uncle Sam actually was made in Germany and Japan, rather than with pride in the United States. Imported images of Uncle Sam produced immediately after the two world wars often had a mocking, cartoonish character. These outlandish-looking Uncle Sams now are feathers in any Fourth of July collectors' hat.

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