The nation’s most impressive fireworks display this summer won’t be found on the Mall or over the Hudson River. This year, the crown already has been awarded to the small town of Denver in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County.
Stifling heat and an early-morning gavel did not stop a group of eager buyers from gathering late last month at Morphy Auctions in Denver for the sale of what is thought to have been the world’s largest private collection of rare, vintage and antique fireworks, sparklers, salutes, pinwheels and “supercharged flashlight crackers.”
Buyers from across the country slowly perused the preview room, peering into glass cases in search of their dream buys. Auction-goers stealthily marked catalogs and bidding sheets with names such as “Yan Kee Boy,” “China Goo Boy,” “Bobco Bill” and “Globe Torpedoes.” Longtime friends became rivals as they mistrustfully brushed past one another to take their seats in the auction hall as the sale got under way.
The gavel fell hard, and the bidding was fierce. The “auction chant” echoed off the walls and back corridors as participants placed their bids in person, by phone and online. Colorful “penny packs,” which sold for 1 cent 100 years ago or more, were soon scooped up at prices north of $1,000 — a nominal 100,000 percent markup on the original.
Intently watching from the back of the room was the man who had made the day and the sale possible — George Moyer, a 64-year-old author, former Marine and professional pyrotechnician from Pottsville, Pa. Cool and calm, Mr. Moyer watched the proceedings with a warm smile and crossed arms as the collection he had built up over about 50 years was sold off piece by piece and lot by lot to his former rivals and fellow “pyromaniacs.”
A love for labels
Mr. Moyer recalled in an interview that his fascination with firecrackers began when he was 10 years old. “When other kids were shooting them off, I was collecting the labels they left behind,” he said.
The labels and packages in his collection were meant to find their way into a trash can or explode. The cover artwork, detailed in the auction’s colorful hard-bound catalog and now much prized by collectors, was never meant to be preserved.
Ornate designs depicting flying fish and clowns taming circus elephants were just marketing tools to distinguish among competing brands. Companies sold their products by catching the buyer’s eye with bright colors and dazzling designs. Companies astonished buyers with patriotic montages of eagles; the red, white and blue; and heroic depictions of the U.S. military.
A Crax Boy package of “flashlight firecrackers,” made in China by the Chan Tai Kee Co., featured a messenger boy based on the Whitman Sampler candy logo delivering a box overflowing with firecrackers framed by columns of Chinese language characters. The pre-consumer-safety movement warning on the cover read, “After lighting, do not hold in hand.”
Estimated to go for a top price of $1,000, the item was gaveled down at Morphy at a purchase price of $3,025.
With firecracker samples dating to the 1800s, Mr. Moyer’s collection in a sense represents a kind of patriotic time capsule. The collection ends around the 1960s, which is about the time the industry’s marketing and image masters began to lose their “spark,” the collector said.
“I don’t think today’s art will ever be considered antiques,” Mr. Moyer said. “Sadly, their quality has really diminished.”
He noted that firecracker companies now sell to larger markets and mass-produce their products.
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