The 31st of December can never be said to be a normal day in a normal week, it is of course “New Year’s Eve,’ a day and evening that is far from a normal day worldwide. For many it is a day of nostalgia and tradition. Across the globe people collectively and passionately welcome in the New Year by letting off loud and colourful fireworks. In the Netherlands the celebrations are called “Old and New” and this is very special to us, and also a big reason to set off fireworks.
In the 17th and 18th century, it was the upper classes and the aristocracy who were the only people who were able to fully engaged with fireworks when celebrating the ‘Old and New’ It was the rich and famous who undertook the festivities and organised firework displays; displays that not only showed off their status, but also symbolised the peace and prosperity of the times. Ordinary people were only allowed to light bonfires and let off carbide explosions (canisters filled with gas and ignited), so like most of us today, they were amazed and overwhelmed by the fireworks and effects that they witnessed in the large displays fired by the upper classes.
However, post 1900, a Dutch manufacturer’ Schuurmans’ of Leeuwarden, started distributing and selling small fireworks to the less well off, after which fireworks engagement amongst the masses became more acceptable and much more common.
Chemist’s shops, hardware stores, bicycle stores and even some larger department stores like ‘Vroom & Dreesman’ soon became the main retailers of fireworks
After celebrating ‘Sinterklaas,’ another fine Dutch tradition around the 7th of December, the first advertisements for fireworks would start appearing in local newspapers. All around town the shops started dressing up their window displays with firework paraphernalia in order to attract as many potential customers as they could. Most of those who gathered at the window displays were youngsters and teenagers. The dummy-fireworks were often attached to and displayed on cardboard and showed a wide variety of wonderful items, items that made the young hearts beat a lot faster.
Most of the fireworks of my youth were made in China, and my memories are of particular brands such as ‘Red Lantern’,’ Horsebrand’ and ‘Flowerbasket.’ I also remember the fine displays of rockets from German brands like ‘Weco’ and ‘Nico’ and the smooth design of rockets from ‘KAT-Leiden,’ a former Dutch make, these shop displays always triggered the imagination.
Genuine old-fashioned fireworks actually made a comeback in the early Seventies. Items like the ‘’Dutch Thunder” and the ‘’Mad Mina” (an oversized, whistling firework) were on their way out. Chinese imports were far less expensive, for example the price of one genuine Dutch banger you could easily buy 20 Chinese ones, which gave you more ‘’bangs for your buck’’.
By the end of the Seventies the final curtain was drawn for Dutch fireworks and the market became dominated by German and Chinese imports, which still resulted in much fun. I am very grateful, that I was able to experience some of these items during my formative and wonderful early years of fireworks.
Because some retailers started selling fireworks by the middle of December, in 1970 legal restrictions were imposed that restricted the sale of fireworks to the last 5 days of the year. The Law was very specific and the letting off of fireworks was only permitted between 10.00pm on the 31st of December and 2.00am on the 1st of January.
However, being a bit rebellious we were already experimented with some of our fireworks after dark almost immediately after Christmas, letting off some mini-rockets and some bangers. To be less conspicuous we usually went to a nearby communal park to ignite the grey-paper fuse and unleash the magic. We would only stay at the same place for a brief amount of time, to avoid unwanted attention.
My wish-list always comprised of bangers of different sizes, strings of Chinese Firecrackers, mini-rockets and fountains. Very soon any pocket money saved had almost completely been spent, as in those days fireworks were really quite expensive, for example 35 Eurocent for one small pack of 10 Shising crackers.
In any event, you had something exciting to keep you occupied for the whole evening. There was always a little extra money left to buy a single pack of really some big bangers, 4” to 5” inch in size, called “Bazooka” or “Atomic bomb”.
These were the expensive bangers, which you treated with respect. And, boy oh boy, what a delicious pile of smouldering paper they would leave after the explosion.
Most of the fireworks of the Seventies (and thereafter) were moderate in size. Some of the tallest and bigger items were about 8” inch in height and had fancy names like “Big snow” and “Green Bamboo”, and which produced a swarm of pearls, whirling through the air.
On top of those items you had some serious ‘German made’ professional rockets with seriously large effects, these of course cost a small fortune and thus were unaffordable for most us, except for a handful of grown-ups of course with very fat wallets. I have seen some of them, one I remember well was a rocket with a big red flare effect that burnt for over a minute before it came down again.
Shopping at ‘Whitebeard’
Another great memory of the 1970’s was when at dawn on the 27th of December my friends and I would meet up on our bicycles and cycle the long distance from our homes in the suberbs into Amsterdam to ‘Whitebeard’, a small, but cosy Party Shop. Having joined all the other early customers in the chaotic queue, we would slowly make progress towards the sales counter, all the time staring at the fireworks with our eyes popping out and with hearts pounding. This was the real deal, dreams were about to be fulfilled and then finally we purchased mini-rockets, bangers, fountains and a few bigger rockets, (having been closely scrutinised by a sales person trying to establish if we were under age or not, or who was looking for an accompanying adult aged 18 years or older) we left the shop happy. Luckily for us the regulations changed in 1975, lowering the age restriction from 18 to 14 years.
‘Whitebeard’ was always well stocked with a wide range of Chinese fireworks and ample stocks of German fireworks such as mines, whistling-bombs, traditional bangers and professional rockets. Dutch fireworks were also sold, with legendary rockets like the ‘Tornado,’ ‘Typhoon’ and ‘Hurricane’ on offer.
After spending several hours in the shop, we would race back home to enjoy our purchases and inspect all the items. The goods were closely examined and carefully displayed on the floor or on the bed in our bedroom. We would then take pictures of everything so we could continue to enjoy our hobby for the rest of the year. The same applied to labels, brochures, cut out advertisements, leaflets and unused items that some hobbyists would keep, these were items we treasured. The jewels in the crown were the tape recordings we made, initially using simple mono cassette recorders. These recordings are a record of just how much we were loved and treasured our fireworks, our hobby.
New Year’s Eve in the Netherlands would be incomplete without the traditional Donut-like cakes called ‘oliebollen’ and ‘appelflappen’ which are made out of dough cooked in hot oil, these with slices of apples or raisins or just plain dough wre sprinkled with icing sugar. Usually I would make the cakes the evening preceding New Year’s Eve, while simultaneously listening to the sound of distant fireworks, that would have been randomly set off in my neighbourhood.
Other typical events around New Year’s Eve were listenign to the Singles Top 100 broadcast on the radio and watching a one-man comedy on television, a show more suitable to mums and dads. However, I preferred to be outside with my friends, or at least be armed with a handful of bangers. At midnight with the family there would be the lighting of sparklers, an alternative for my parents, although my dad occasionally did let off a Bazooka, a banger that measured 4 inch in length.
So there we were, impatiently counting the hours down until the final seconds of the old year wishing each another a Happy New Year and then be able to join the magic pandemonium of bursting colours, noises and whistles. That was the spirit of celebration and nostalgic happiness!
‘Progress Down the Years’
Over the years additional legislation came into force regarding fireworks. In 1980, the noise produced by bangers was restricted to 150 dB, this after a scientific paper linked noise-levels to possible hearing impairment. This was long before the appearance of the Walkman (which posed a real danger to our ears). The trend however was now set and this restriction no doubt affected the quality of bangers later on.
Furthermor,e a number of bans were imposed on items with unpredictable, erratic behaviour and also some professional rockets were banned. The final item to be phased out was the grey fuse which would burn so beautifully and gracefully, but was on the other hand vulnerable to water. The successor became the green safety fuse made of a protective viscose, burning more steadily with less chance of failure, but without the nostalgia from days gone by.
Although some fireworks have disappeared, the remaining fireworks of the Eighties and Nineties were still large and fascinating and many items nowadays remain very desirable for collectors. It was not all ‘doom and gloom’ restrictions for age of use were eased and it’s now allowed to let off fireworks for most of the 31st of December (usually from 10.00 am). Since 1998 large cakes with powerful bombettes have been introduced, a trend that is still developing.
The introduction of the internet has allowed many Netherlands pyro fans armed with a flat bed scanner to be able to share their firework pictures, brochures and clips. They are now able to upload them to the World Wide Web and with some websapce share them with many others.
The Dutch Fireworks Museum (VWM)
The Dutch Firewroks Museum started in 2004 when a number of enthusiasts joined a conversation in a Pyro-forum, a conversation focussed on the topic of historical fireworks, with personal histories and nostalgic memories coming to the fore. In a short matter of time ideas materialised and the first digital edition of the Dutch Fireworks Museum was born. It was an easy to navigate database wrapped up in a neat design, featuring an upload plug-in for photographs of historical information. It was only a matter of time before the fireworks that were so popular for so many years were replaced by modern cakes with their ever-changing label-designs. A record of them had to preserved.
Everyone who wanted to contribute something, navigated their way into the Museum, which subsequently became a meeting place where hobbyists shared their stories. It is now a complete website, using tools like a forum, chatbox and a database for clips and pictures to be shared.
From every corner of the country beautiful pictures arrived at the museum, previously lost gems returned from the past, illustrious names like Typhoon Rocket, Rising Moon, Sputnik, Light Castle, Mad Mina, Bazooka, Happiness, Tom Thumb, Apollo Rocket, Chinese Vase, Green Bamboo, Flying Cranes, Happy New-Year, German bangers, Big Snow, Flowerpot, Firefly Rocket and many, many more.
Today Fireworks are changing almost every year, designs are not in circulation for very long and new collections are introduced periodically. The brilliant and beautiful designs that characterised so many of the historical fireworks are gone, however in return we can now enjoy beautiful, stunning and almost professional effects thanks to the changes that at times were imposed on us.
After a long journey we can still chant: HAPPY NEW YEAR! •