Flowers of Fire: Illustrations from Japanese Fireworks Catalogues (ca. 1880s)

The spinning saxon, flying pigeons, polka batteries, jumping jacks and firecrackers, squibs and salutes, Aztec Fountains, Bengal Lights, and Egyptian Circlets, bangers or bungers, cakes, crossettes, candles, and a Japanese design known as kamuro (boys haircut), which looks like a bobbed wig teased out across the stratosphere. . . the language of fireworks has a richness that hints at the explosive payload it references. And yet, anyone who has ever held their camera up to the blazing sky knows that a brilliant firework show can rarely be captured to any satisfying degree. Perhaps this is what makes a nineteenth-century series of catalogue advertisements for Japanese fireworks so mesmerizing: denied the expectations of photorealism, these images are free to evoke a unique sense of visual wonder.

Thought to have been invented in China around the second century BCE, fireworks began as modest bamboo sparklers, advancing toward today’s complex pyrotechnic spectacles with the piecemeal discovery of saltpeter, gunpowder, tubular projectiles, and colorizing salts. While Chinese and European firework histories are heavily documented, Japan’s traditions remain moderately more obscure. Despite excellent pyrotechnic craftsmanship, for example, it was still possible for researchers to write, as recently as 2010, that “comprehensive information encompassing the development of fireworks culture in Japan, the history, and any intricate symbolism, is not widely known or appreciated within Japan, let alone abroad.”

Fireworks appeared in Japan sometime around 1600 and were called hanabi — a combination of the kanji “fire” and “flower”. Japanese innovations have been responsible for a pair of popular firework forms: peonies and chrysanthemums, two subcategories of the larger class of warimono designs. Excellence in craftsmanship arose from competition in nineteenth-century Edo between hanabishi (firework artisans) on either side of Ryōgoku Bridge. As the story is told, passersby would shout Kayiga or Tamaya — the names of the rival master craftsmen — and these names are still shouted during fireworks events in the area today. The rivalry lasted until 1843, when an explosion in the Tamaya shop led to the expulsion of the business from Edo.

The illustrations below come from catalogues digitized by the Yokohama City Library, which contain English-language advertisements for Hirayama Fireworks and Yokoi Fireworks, published by C. T. Brock and Company, the oldest fireworks manufacturer in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1877, the Hirayama company was global from its onset: the founder Jinta Hirayama is thought to have been the first Japanese citizen to register a U.S. copyright.

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Of the many intriguing images in these catalogues, it is their inclusion of complex figures, which seem pyrotechnically impossible, that most captivates the contemporary eye. To understand these scintillating and unfamiliar forms (daylight bombshells, parachute light-balls), it is helpful to go back into the annals of a British fireworks dynasty. Pyrotechnics: The History and Art of Firework Making (1922) is written by a man “the eighth generation of a family of pyrotechnists”: Alan St. Hill Brock, a descendent of John Brock, who founded Brock’s Fireworks Ltd in 1698, publisher of the catalogues under question and still in existence today. According to Brock the author, daylight fireworks originated in Japan and were not really “fireworks” as we have come to know them. Instead of pyrotechnic effects, the daylight projectile contained “a grotesque balloon in the form of an animal, human figure, or other form, which, being open and weighted at the lower end, becomes inflated as it falls and remains in the air for a considerable period.” In the catalogue images gathered here, you will see daylight balloons shaped like frogs, mounted jockeys, and a tortoise-riding fisherman (probably the fairytale protagonist Urashima Tarō, on a journey to the submarine Dragon Palace).

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Other “daylight bombshells” appear as collections of objects — somersaulting umbrellas, giant jellybeans — or abstract smears of rich pigments dyeing the sky. Some diurnal fireworks, it seems, functioned more like smoke bombs or piñatas, creating “coloured clouds formed by coloured powder” or showering “streamers, confetti, and toys” on a rapt, land-bound audience. You might notice that several images contain balls of light suspended by parachutes: Brock’s book goes some way toward explaining the history of this technology — “the parachute light-ball” — though he credits its invention to the Danish circa 1820. (While the sections on Japan are perhaps the most illuminating, we also learn about the Green Man, fabulously illustrated by John Bate, and the forgotten pyrotechnic associations of this mythological figure that lends his name to scores of British pubs.)

Despite the novelty of daylight fireworks, the Japanese “night shells” are no less disarming. While explosions were traditionally orange-colored, Hirayama was instrumental in introducing radiant displays. A keen-eyed viewer might even pick up several examples of katamono style — a rarer form of firework capable of spelling out letters and drawing stick figures or faces in the night sky. You can browse the complete catalogues of nineteenth-century Japanese fireworks through the Yokohama City Library., and browse our highlights below. For further reading, pyrotechnic enthusiasts can borrow a digital copy of George Plimpton’s ode to explosions, which discusses Japan’s Ogatsu firework family, at Internet Archive.

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