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Fireworks History in Books

Fireworks History in Books

For centuries fireworks displays have marked epochal events and their anniversaries. Consequently, as part of the celebration of its Three Millionth acquisition, the Brown University Library has acquired the premier collection of books and manuscripts devoted to the history of recreational fireworks. Purchased with funds provided by Paul R. Dupee Jr. '65, this collection was assembled by Chris A. Philip, one of Great Britain's foremost pyrotechnists and author of the standard reference work on the subject -- A Bibliography of Firework Books (Winchester, 1985). The Dupee Collection on Fireworks, named in honor of its donor, already enjoys an international reputation for the excellence and depth of its resources.

Although celebratory in the subject as well as in circumstance, the Dupee Collection is hardly an exotic acquisition for it complements many other of the Library's historically significant collections. In particular, it enhances classic works on artillery and explosives in the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, the History of Science Collection and the Williams Table Collection -- Brown University's original pre-Revolutionary War Library. The Dupee Collection also supports the H. Adrian Smith Collection of Conjuring and Magicana and related holdings in the performing arts ranging from fête books commemorating major historical events to broadsides and sheet music.

The origin of the Dupee Collection extends back some thirty years, to the late 1960s when Chris Philip visited Malta. While on that island, he became fascinated by the elaborate firework displays staged by many of the small villages to commemorate their patronal feast days. Upon returning to England he sought out the Reverend Ronald Lancaster, a leading authority in the field of pyrotechnics, who encouraged Philip's interest and presented him with an inscribed copy of Lancaster's own work on Fireworks: Principles and Practice (New York, 1972). With that volume and Alan St. Hill Brock's A History of Fireworks (London, 1949) as guides, he soon began to build his own collection.

Philip's first serious purchase was a folio-sized eighteenth-century fête book, Relation de l'lnauguration solomnelle de. . . Charles VI (Ghent, 1719), containing four spectacular illustrations of firework displays. He eventually amassed 163 books printed between 1559 and 1985; long runs of eight journal titles, including American Firework News (1981-88); 130 engravings and other prints of historic firework displays; and five small archives of manuscripts, manufacturers' catalogs, photographs, posters and other ephemera that now constitute the Dupee Collection. This extensive reference collection contains at least one work by over 85 percent of the authors recorded in the Bibliography of Firework Books.

A selection of significant early books in the Dupee Collection includes Vannocio Biringuccio's Pirotechnia (Venice, 1559), a later edition of the earliest treatise on manufacturing gunpowder (1540); Joseph Furttenbach's Halinitro-Pyrobolia (Ulm, 1627), one of the oldest German artillery manuals to discuss "Das Fewrwerck zur Kurtweil und Ernst laboriren"; and Francois de Malthe's Traité des Feux Artifices pour la Guerre et pour la Recreation (Paris, 1629), the first separate monograph devoted solely to fireworks. Among the eighteenth and nineteenth century titles are the earliest firework treatises to be published in France, Italy and Germany. Also present in the collection are James Cutbush's A System of Pyrotechny (Philadelphia, 1825), the earliest American contribution to firework literature; Risho's Hanabi hiden-shu (Osaka, circa 1825), the first Japanese printed book containing instructions for making fireworks; and F. M. Chertier's Nouvelles Recherches sur les Feux D'Artifice (Paris,1843), which introduced a new palette of colors for fireworks. In combination with the Dupee Collection, the Brown University Library's holdings of recreational firework books now include works by over 90 percent of the authors recorded in Philip's bibliography.

John Babington's Pyrotechnia, or a discourse of Artificiall Fire-works: In which the true Grounds of that Art are plainly and perspicuously laid down (London, 1635) was chosen from among the wealth of material in the Dupee Collection to be the Brown University Library's ceremonial Three Millionth Volume. Chris Philip described this book as being "without doubt the most important in Firework bibliography." It was the first English text to deal exclusively with the recreational aspects of fireworks rather than with their military uses. Babington, an "inferior Gunner" in the service of Charles I, provided directions for making rockets, star-wheels and ground-wheels that were more explicit than any offered by earlier writers, and he provided elaborate designs for fixed displays, such as "How to compose a Castle of fireworks," as well as for flying figures of St. George and The Dragon that were propelled along taut ropes by rocket power.

The Dupee Collection on Fireworks in combination with the historical strengths of the Special Collections of the Brown University Library has created an amalgamation of resources that provides almost complete documentation for the study of the artistic, social and technical history of firework making from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

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