Sunday, July 9, 2017

Grover Cleveland, William Jennings Bryan and Ballistic Missile Submarines - a History of the "Safe and Sane" Fourth of July

A “Safe &Sane” Fourth is not just for humans.

The Ohio Class Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN) of the United States’ submarine fleet is arguably the most dangerous and explosive weapons’ system on the face of the earth.  Ironically, the wife of the founder of the company that built those boats led the campaign to curb the use of some of the world’s least dangerous explosives – firecrackers:

The question of putting an end to the barbarity of our present observance of Independence Day is now assuming an importance undreamed of several years ago.  No longer need one fear to be branded with the stigma of disloyalty to country if one inveighs against the madness of parents who place dangerous explosives in the hands of their little ones, or protests vehemently against the crime of permitting wee children to be maimed and killed in the celebration of a holiday.  Partly as a result of the untiring efforts of the Journal of the American Medical Association in compiling statistics of the cost of our observance of the Fourth, a wave of indignation is sweeping over the country, and the time now certainly seems ripe for some concerted action for the protection of our boys and girls.

Mrs. Isaac L. Rice, For a Safe and Sane Fourth, New York, Department of Child Hygiene of the Russell Sage Foundation, 1910(?) (reprinted from The Forum, March, 1910).

In 1906, Mrs. Isaac L. Rice (nee Julia Hyneman Barnett) founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise to fight all manner of unnecessary noise in an increasingly crowded and mechanized city.[i]  Those familiar “Quiet – Hospital Zone” signs seen in nearly every city in the United States are one of the most visible vestiges of her work.  She also took on steamship whistles, factory whistles, milk wagons, and bakers’ wagons.

The Sun (New York), July 2, 1907, page 2.

Her campaign against steamship whistles was her first major success, resulting in a federal decree prohibiting superfluous whistling in the nation’s waterways.  In July 1907, the Secretary of Commerce and Labor sent her a congratulatory letter after issuing the first such citation to Captain Reynolds of the tug Eugene F. Moran, who was suspended for “tooting his whistle unnecessarily” in the vicinity of Bellevue Hospital (students from Columbia University helped compile the evidence against him). [ii]

Flush with success, she turned her sights to the Fourth of July.  Initially, her concern (at least as reported) was directed primarily at noise near the hospitals:

Gen. Bingham assured her that the police would take every precaution against allowing bombs or firecrackers to be exploded near hospitals.  He said that although Mayor McClellan had not yet signed the new ordinance passed by the Board of Aldermen for the establishment of hospital zones he would consider it in effect just the same over the Fourth. [iii]

And while Mrs. Rice pressed for change, others took a more fatalistic approach, teaching first aid instead of abstinence:
As Mrs. Rice, the suppression of unnecessary noise advocate, has not succeeded in diverting American patriotism from expressing itself on the Fourth of July by means of explosives of various kinds, there is every reason to believe that the casualty list of our national holiday will line up in length with those of preceding years.  Carelessness on the part of parents, disobedience on the part of young America and greed on the part of dealers are responsible for most of the accidents that the celebration of Independence day brings forth.  If children were properly protected from the use of toy pistols, giant firecrackers and other dangerous noise making devices – But why talk of things as they ought to be?  It were better to accept them as they are and to give a few instructions to mothers who are apt to lose their heads when Johnnie or Molly is badly burned.

The Evening Times (Grand Forks, North Dakota), June 19, 1909, page 7.

Eventually, however, she switched her focus from noise prevention to safety.

Seattle Star (Washington), July 3, 1911, page 1.
But she was late to the party.

Mrs. Rice did not start the “safe and sane” movement, nor did she coin the expression.  The dangers of fireworks were well known and city governments had been passing laws against their use for more than a century.  Many sources suggest that the “safe and sane” movement started Cleveland, Ohio in 1908, in response to a devastating explosion and fire in a Kresge 5 & 10 cent store.[iv]  But it was a different Cleveland – former president Grover Cleveland – who inadvertently gave the movement what every successful movement needs, its pithy catch-phrase – “Safe & Sane.”  Cleveland, however, was not talking about the scourge of fireworks – he was talking about the scourge of the fiery populist politician, William Jennings Bryan.

Pullman Herald (Pullman, Washington), July 7, 1900, page 2.

Early Regulations

Anti-firecracker regulations date back to the earliest days of the United States, even if frequently unenforced, spottily enforced, or ignored on the Fourth of July, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.  In 1783, for example, in preparation for celebrations to mark the official end of hostilities to end the Revolutionary War, the United States’ first day of actual independence from Great Britain, the city of Philadelphia proclaimed that:

Any boys or others, who disturb the citizens by throwing squibs or crackers, or otherwise, will be immediately apprehended and sent to the workhouse!!![v]

Two years later, New York State passed a similar law forbidding firing or discharging “any gun, pistol, rocket, squib or other firework, within a quarter of a mile of any building” from New Year’s Eve through January 2nd. [vi]  The state also passed a law prohibiting the same behavior at any time in New York City anywhere “southward of fresh water,” under penalty of a fine of 10 shillings or 10 days in “gaol” (jail).  On a sobering note, slaves[vii] were exempt from fine or imprisonment, but faced a public whipping of up to 39 “stripes” on their back at the discretion of the magistrate.[viii]

There are numerous accounts of similar restrictions on the use of squibs, crackers, fireworks, toy pistols, cannons and the like throughout the next century, frequently with little effect.  A description of the Fourth of July in New York in 1841 exemplifies typical restrictions and typical lack of enforcement:

The city ordinances and authorities prohibited boys from issuing fire-works, and the boys showed their independence of all ordinances, by setting off squibs under the very noses of the authorities.  Fiery serpents hissed at our heels; rockets penetrated our windows, and explored our bed-chambers; and crackers were any thing but good to eat.

 The Sunbury American and Shamokin Journal (Pennsylvania), July 24, 1841, page 1.

Enforcement of the laws was so ineffective in New York City that people who could generally left the city on the Fourth:

Excursions and Amusements.

Tomorrow, as our readers understand, is the anniversary of the Declaration of our National Independence – the only holiday, as foreigners assert, (and surely they ought to know) which the Americans have.  It will doubtless be celebrated as usual in this city, with the greatest hilarity and enthusiasm by the lawless urchins of the city, who will make the streets hideous and dangerous by squibs, crackers, serpents, and all the small enginery for which the diabolical invention of gunpowder may justly be held responsible.  As it is, therefore, reasonable to suppose that as many of our readers as possibly can will desire the leave the city, we have made up the following list of excursions . . . .

New York Daily Tribune, July 3, 1843, page 2.

Nearly three decades later, conditions had not improved and the authorities tried once again to curb the dangerous celebrations:

If the Fourth of July is not celebrated in a more agreeable manner than usual the fault will not be that of Superintendent Kennedy, who issued an order requiring every member of the police to be on duty for the day, and to enforce the laws forbidding the discharge of fire-arms and the use of “snakes,” “chasers,” and “double-headers” in the streets. . . .  Instead of being the pleasantest, the Fourth of July is now in the city of New York the most intolerably disagreeable day in the year.  It is the day which every body escapes who can, flying into the country to avoid the universal pop and whiz of gunpowder.

Harper’s Weekly, Volume 13, Number 654, July 10, 1869, page 435.

Those who left the city may have been treated to a less dangerous spectacle that looked something like this:

Fire-Works in the Country, Harper’s Weekly, Volume 13, Number 654, July 10, 1869, page 440.
Similar laws and similar complaints are recounted in cities and towns in all parts of the country for decades.

Fireworks Reform

Agitation to reduce the dangers accompanying Fourth of July celebrations picked up steam in the late-1890s, as part of the progressive reform movement then sweeping the country.  An early discussion of firecracker safety looked to the “Flowery Kingdom” (China), the birthplace of firecrackers, for one solution:

There is always a danger that the little squibs and the larger crackers will start a conflagration.  John Chinaman does away with this danger by setting off his firecrackers in a cage like the one shown in the illustration.  Its sides are of wire, and so closely woven that the flying fragments do not get out of the cage.  There is all the noise and none of the danger of setting fires.

In this country the cages may be seen in the “joss house,” or temple, of any Chinese colony.

 The Abbeville Press and Banner (South Carolina), July 10, 1895, page 3.

The debate was underway in New York City by 1896, although they did not immediately take any action:

Although Mayor Strong and the Board of Aldermen had decided to allow the patriotic spirits of the local youth to be untrammeled in the enjoyment of fireworks, the Fourth was not much noisier than usual.

The Sun (New York), July 5, 1896, page 5.

Philadelphia debated the issue in 1897 after a particularly dangerous Fourth of July.  One observer advocated prohibiting only the most dangerous firecrackers:

Twenty hospital cases and eight fires, all caused by the explosion of fireworks, firecrackers or the discharge of pistols, is the record of casualties resulting from the glorious Fourth.  The Philadelphia Press remarks that “it is a formidable record, and will give point and emphasis to the demand for the total suppression of explosives on the Fourth of July.”

. . . [A] new cracker has come into vogue charged with dynamite or some similar violent explosive. . . .  These are dangerous explosives and their sale should be forbidden.  Gunpowder makes noise enough, and its perils are at least familiar.  The dynamite firecracker must go – it might be advisable to pass on an ordinance prohibiting the so-called “giant” firecracker altogether as a dangerous nuisance.  But the good, old-fashioned firecracker must stay.  What would the Fourth of July be without it?

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), July 12, 1897, page 4.

In other cities, restrictions were put in place piecemeal; sometimes limiting the types of explosives, the times of their use, the places in which they could be used, and the age limit for their use.  Initially there was very little call for an outright ban on their use.

In 1900, Omaha, Nebraska forbid the use of explosives in the public parks on the Fourth.[ix]  And in 1901:

In Kansas City, Chicago and other towns the tragedies and atrocities of misguided Fourth of July celebrants are to be restrained.  In Kansas City a special regulation is that no fireworks or revolvers shall be shot off before midnight of July 3d.  Torpedoes are not to be put on car tracks.  Loaded revolvers shall not be fired and no fireworks at all exploded in crowds, stores or dangerous places.  Nobody is to be insulted, nor is a pistol with any blank cartridge to be pointed at anybody.  Mayor Harrison of Chicago forbids the use of cannons, guns, pistols, revolvers, dynamite or cannon crackers under a penalty of $25 for each offense.  Anybody who sells or gives a toy pistol to a child will be liable to a penalty of $10. . . .

Last year fifty-nine persons were killed and 2, 767 injured in the principal cities of the United States in celebrating the Fourth.  The use of explosives should be regulated.

The Leavenworth Times (Kansas), June 28, 1901, page 2.

The Globe Republican (Dodge City, Kansas), July 4, 1901, page 3.

Although the obvious danger of direct injury from the explosion was a serious problem, the secondary effects of infection, lockjaw, tetanus and blood poisoning due to untreated or poorly treated injuries also posed a significant threat:

Rock Island Argus and Daily Union, June 25, 1901, page 6.

Indianapolis News, July 2, 1904, page 13.

The following description of some early attempts to regulate their use suggests that the explosives available during the period were much larger and dangerous than ones typically encountered in the United States today:

Syracuse permits a five-inch cracker and Boston, I believe, countenances one six inches long and one inch wide.  When one recognizes the fact that fourteen-inch cannon crackers are commonly sold, even in towns where their use is forbidden, and that it is impossible for a police officer to differentiate (after the explosion) between a five and a fourteen-inch cracker, ordinances of a merely restrictive character appear to have little practical value.  Dr. Evans, Health Commissioner of Chicago, has declared that even a two-inch firecracker could not be considered safe, because the wound made by it could become infected just as easily as that made by a ten-inch cracker.

Mrs. Isaac L. Rice, For a Safe and Sane Fourth, New York, Department of Child Hygiene of the Russell Sage Foundation, 1910(?) (reprinted from The Forum, March, 1910), page 18.

Despite the genuine dangers, some people still thought it was all pretty funny:

Daily Inter Mountain (Butte, Montana), July 1, 1899, page 15.

 “Safe and Sane” Democrats

In April 1904, in the run-up to the Democratic party’s convention to be held in St. Louis in July, former President Grover Cleveland sent a letter to be read to a meeting of the Iroquois Democratic Club of Chicago on the occasion of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.  His words sought to return the Democratic Party to the status quo after eight years under the control of the populist outsider, William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan’s populist movement wrested control of the party away from party traditionalists (they hadn’t invented “Super-delegates” yet) to win the party’s nomination in 1896 and 1900, only to lose to McKinley both times: 

Mr. Cleveland’s Letter

Princeton, N. J., March 28, 1904.

. . . [Jefferson’s] devotion to the interests of the people, his wise conservatism and his constant adherence to the public good, always the guiding star of his career, commend his acts and his beliefs to the careful study of those who, in these days, patriotically seek the welfare of our country through the ascendency of safe and sane Democracy.

The Star Press (Muncie, Indiana), April 14, 1904, page 5.

The sentiment itself was not new.  In 1900, Cleveland’s former treasury secretary, Charles S. Fairchild, a Democrat, used similar words to encourage Democrats to vote across party lines in the general election to help defeat Bryan:

In this election my vote and what influence I shall have will be given to the defeat of the candidate for the Presidency, misnamed Democrat, and as a means most effective to that end I shall cast my vote for the Republican electoral ticket.  I believe that this is the prudent, the safe, the sane thing to do, and that any other course would be unsafe and not sane.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 27, 1900, page 1.

There are a few other scattered examples of “safe and sane” in print before 1904, but it does not appear to have been frequent or idiomatic use prior to Cleveland’s letter to the Iroquois Club in the spring of 1904.  But soon afterward, the expression became a common catch-phrase to describe Democratic opposition to Bryan and his ilk:

Consider the state of mind of those Parker delegates, grave and sober men, advocates of a safe and sane Democracy . . . .

The Washington Times (Washington DC), April 8, 1904, page 6.

Wall street’s prejudice against Roosevelt is not a s acute as it was, and although men of Republican leanings would be glad to vote for a safe and sane Democrat there is an underlying feeling that the chance to do so may not be afforded.

The Indianapolis Journal, May 1, 1904, page 18.

[T]he Gold Democrats . . . wish to treat the Bryanites as erring brothers and to welcome them back to the councils of the party only as repentant followers, to be led by what Mr. Cleveland calls the “safe and sane Democracy.”

Tazewell Republican (Tazewell, Virginia), May 5, 1904, page 2.

The Saint Paul Globe (Minnesota), May 15, 1904, page 36.

[The New York World] suggests that his name [(Judge Parker)] was brought forward as a buffer between the “radical” and the “safe and sane” Democrats, to be relegated to the rear as soon as it became apparent that the latter element would be in control at St. Louis.

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), June 14, 1904, page 6.

It is our duty as Democrats and as men of intelligence to give to the voters of the United States a safe and sane platform; and one upon which all the Democrats of the country can stand.

The Republic (Columbus, Ohio), July 5, 1904, page 3.

And “safe and sane” it was, with Parker leading the ticket:

Puck magazine marked the transformation of the Democrats with cover-art showing Judge Parker astride the Democratic donkey wearing a scarf or cravat emblazoned with “S and S” (“Safe and Sane”).

Puck, Volume 56, Number 1431, August 3, 1904.

“Safe and Sane” continued to be associated with Democratic politics several years.

In 1908, for example, Senator John Johnson of Minnesota’s path to the Democratic nomination for President was log-jammed; one of the logs blocking his way was his reputation as a “Safe Sane Fake”.

Puck, Volume 63, Number 1634, June24, 1908.
In 1910, Santa Claus had trouble delivering a Democratic victory with all of the flues in the chimney; one of them was marked “Safe & Sane.”

Puck, Volume 68, Number 1764, December 21, 1910.

“Safe and Sane” Fourth of July

Meanwhile, efforts to reduce the dangers of traditional Fourth of July celebrations continued apace, with several cities passing new restrictions on the use of explosives.  Saint Paul Minnesota, for example, passed an ordinance before Independence Day 1903, only to pass another one after the Fourth when the first ordinance did not have the intended effect.

St. Paul Globe, May 7, 1903, page 2.

St. Paul Globe, August 7, 1903, page 3.

Chicago, the city where Grover Cleveland’s “safe and sane” letter was first read in April 1904, passed an ordinance restricting the use of explosives to certain areas of the city and completely prohibiting the use of toy pistols at about the same time:

Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), April 23, 1904, page 4.

Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), April 26, 1904, page 4.
Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1904, page 3.

By June of 1904, influenced perhaps by the Democratic party’s “safe and sane” rhetoric, newspapers reporting on such laws regularly applied the expression “safe and sane” to such efforts in Chicago and elsewhere:

There is an indication of real desire for improvement in the fact that an organized movement in Chicago is working for a safe and sane Fourth of July in advance of that celebration and not after the casualty list is footed up.  Its argument is to the effect that since the five Independence days preceding show totals of 761 killed, 1,200 injured and a fire loss of $395,000 for Chicago alone a method of celebration that would reduce the bill of damages would not be deficient in patriotism.  The Chicago reformers propose picnics in the parks, with speeches, reading of the Declaration, games, races, fireworks and balloon ascensions.  That is what has been done in Pittsburg for some years past.  Yet our experience shows that merely offering a counter attraction does not lessen the ravages of the cannon cracker and the toy pistol.  If the unnecessary loss of the national birthday is to be stopped it must be by active police suppression of the dangerous methods, backed by the common sense and active co-operation, if necessary, of thoughtful people.

The Evening Star (Washington DC), June 2, 1904, page 4 (reprinted from the Pittsburg Dispatch).

A “safe and sane 4th of July,” for which a strong and reasonable demand has arisen, is likely, unfortunately, to be a barren ideal.  The American small boy is not to be easily sidetracked – especially when he feelingly appeals to the boyhood memories of the father. . . .  There must needs be some fervor in a 4th of July, but it is not worth human lives sacrificed to attain it.  Fun with a judicious admixture of prudence is the need of the great city. – Burlington [Iowa] Hawkeye.

The Ogden Standard, June 17, 1904, page 4.

The department is usually kept busy on the Fourth responding to fire alarms of greater or lesser importance.  This year the Mayor’s strict enforcement of the laws prohibiting ante-Fourth celebrations has cut down the number of alarms, and it is expected that the department will have less work to do than usual on the national holiday.

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), July 3, 1904, page 20.

Kansas City Star: The results of the initial enforcement of the new ordinance regulating the use of fireworks in Kansas City fully justify the enactment of the law and should insure its permanent operation.  Last year on the Fourth of July the police surgeons treated more than sixty injuries, some of them serious, and all due to the use of explosives, toy pistols or revolvers.  Yesterday there were only three cases for the surgeons, and all of these were trifling.

Omaha Daily Bee (Nebraska), July 7, 1904, page 4.

News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), October 14, 1904, page 4.

When the Kresge fire in Cleveland prompted more and stricter regulations and, perhaps more importantly, better enforcement of those restrictions, the expression “safe and sane” had been in idiomatic use in connection with Fourth of July fireworks for more than four years.  The expression would become even more widespread after Mrs. Isaac L. Rice and her Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise jumped on the bandwagon.   

By 1914, the expression was sufficiently mainstream to find its way into advertising.

The Evening World (New York), June 26, 1914, page 10.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Mrs.  Rice’s Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise was not the first such society. 
Aberdeen Weekly (Aberdeen, Mississippi), November 11, 1904, page 6.

And coincidentally, as was the case with the expression “safe and sane,” the original Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise had close ties with William Jennings Bryan, bringing everything full-circle.


In 1897, Joseph Pulitzer, the editor of the New York World, reportedly launched a campaign for the “suppression of unnecessary noises.”

Turner County Herald (Hurley, South Dakota), December 9, 1897, page 2.
In 1898, Dr. John H. Guerdner was the president of an earlier version of the “Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise,”[x] although it is unclear whether it was an outgrowth of Pulitzer’s crusade or on his own initiative. 

During a visit to New York City in December of 1898, William Jennings Bryan reportedly had lunch with Dr. Guerdner at his home at 23 West Forty-fifth Street.

The Sun (New York), December 19, 1898, page 1.

The irony of a notorious big-talker meeting up with the leading anti-noise advocate of the day was not lost on press:

The other day William J. Bryan, of Nebraska, the most prolific producer of noise in this country, bearded the lion in his den by actually venturing into the New York residence of Dr. John H. Guerdner, president of the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise.  What happened during the interview is not reported, but Mr. Bryan finally escaped apparently unsuppressed.  After this no one can question Mr. Bryan’s courage.  – Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

The Diamond Drill (Christal Falls, Michigan), January 7, 1899, page 3.

The fact that Dr. John H. Girdner of the Society for the Supression of Unnecessary Noises should be Col. William Jennings Bryan’s most intimate friend in this town has often amused the frivolous.  The New York correspondent of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat writes that after the Jeffersonian Dollar Dinner” Bryan confided to Girdner his conviction that Williams and no other man ought to be nominated for the Vice-Presidency.”  The authenticity of this anecdote has been denied, but intrinsically it is and ought to be true.  Considering Col. Bryan and his Hon. George Fred Williams as unavoidable and insuppressible noises, they blend excellently.

The Sun (New York, May 16, 1899, page 6.

In a quirk of fate, when Mrs. Isaac L. Rice turned the attentions of her new Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise to the “Safe and Sane” Fourth of July movement ten years later, she was joining a movement (“Safe and Sane”) named for the man (William Jennings Bryan) who both inspired the name of the movement and was an intimate friend of the president of the original Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise.

And in another quirk of fate, while history remembers the City of Cleveland’s role in advancing the “safe and sane” Fourth of July movement, it was actually a different Cleveland, former President Grover Cleveland, who unintentionally gave the movement its name with his criticism of the politics of William Jennings Bryan.

Together they provided the knock-out punch to make our holiday celebrations just a little bit safer.

North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune (Nebraska), July 1, 1921, page 7.

[i] New York Tribune, December 4, 1906, page 8.
[ii] The Sun (New York), July 2, 1907, page 2.
[iii] The Sun (New York), July 2, 1907, page 2.
[v] William Cobbett, Porcupine’s Works,  Volume 3, London, Cobbett and Morgan,  1801, page 440.
[vi] Chapter 81, an act to prevent the firing of guns and other fire arms within this State, on certain days therein mentioned, passed April 22, 1785, Laws of the State of New York passed at the sessions of the legislature held in the years 1785-1788 (republished), Volume 2, Albany, Weed, Parsons and Company, 1886.
[vii] Although abolition began in New York State in 1785, one in three blacks in New York State were still enslaved as of 1790.
[viii] Chapter 43, an act for the effectual prevention of fires in the city of New York, passed April 22, 1785, Laws of the State of New York passed at the sessions of the legislature held in the years 1785-1788 (republished), Volume 2, Albany, Weed, Parsons and Company, 1886.
[ix] Omaha Daily Bee (Nebraska), July 3, 1900, page 12.
[x] The Sun (New York), December 19, 1898, page 1.