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13 Secrets of Rare Book Dealers

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In the digital age, the rare book trade might seem like an antiquated trend from a bygone era, known for its dusty tomes and pedantic old men. But e-books have actually awakened readers to the fact that a printed book is more than just the written text—it’s an historical object itself. Thanks to the internet, information on this esoteric subject is now widely available, and more people than ever are learning about book collecting. Dealers are also handling a wider variety of material, and these fresh perspectives are electrifying a once-sleepy, rarified world. With these developments, the trade has changed more in the last 20 years than in the last 200. Rebecca Romney, a rare book dealer based in Brooklyn, shares some secrets and surprises of this quirky corner of book culture with Mental Floss in this list.

1. AN OLD BOOK ISN’T NECESSARILY A RARE BOOK.

A shelf of older books, some with damaged covers
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In book collecting, supply and demand are king. A book becomes “rare” when it’s both hard to find and highly sought. If the supply side or the demand side isn’t extreme, it doesn’t qualify. This means a book from 1850 isn't necessarily “rare” if no one wants it. And no, a book from the 1800s isn’t automatically desirable because it’s “old.” In rare books, the word "old" is relative: Within the 500 years of printed history we handle, a book from 1850 isn't really that old. The only books old enough to be highly sought-after just for their age are those printed in the 1400s, from the earliest years of printed books in the West.

2. IT’S NOT JUST BOOKS.

Yes, our profession is called the rare book trade, but that's because it’s easier to say. In fact, we handle manuscripts, scrolls, etchings, and other prints, archives—even sometimes ventriloquist dummies from itinerant woman preachers. Is there text? Or does the item have a connection to books in some way? That’s good enough for us.

3. YES, DUST JACKETS REALLY ARE THAT IMPORTANT.

A bookseller holding a first edition of The Great Gatsby at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

“Completeness” is a key standard of book collecting—the idea is that a book should retain all the parts with which it was historically issued. In modern books, this often means the dust jacket: A first edition’s price can rise or fall exponentially based on the original dust jacket. An extreme example is The Great Gatsby: Without the jacket, a first edition currently runs around $4000-$6000. In a decent, unrestored original dust jacket, the price leaps closer to $100,000.

4. WE LITERALLY COUNT EVERY PAGE OF A BOOK.

This is especially true for books from before about 1800, in what we call the “handpress” period. The earlier in print history you go, the more likely you are to discover missing pages. Objectionable passages are torn from banned books. Stunning engravings are excised to be framed and put on a wall. The blank pages in the front or back of a book are often missing, too: Historically, paper was an expensive commodity, so owners would tear out those blank pages for use. Dealers must go through a book page by page to make sure that everything has remained intact. We even have a specialized method of counting based on how the book was formatted by the printer. And we hate being interrupted in the middle of counting a 500-page book. One of my friends puts a sign on her desk that reads, “Don’t bother me: I’m counting.”

5. YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE A LOT OF MONEY TO COLLECT.

A stack of bills inside an older book
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The books that make the headlines are the $6 million Shakespeare First Folio or the $150,000 first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But often the most interesting collections—the ones that end up housed at some prestigious institution—are built by people who aren’t buying the most expensive books. In 2015, Duke University acquired the collection of Lisa Baskin, which documents women at work through the past five centuries, to much fanfare. Baskin formed this world-class collection for a fraction of the expense one might expect—because for most of the 40 years she was collecting, she was purchasing books that weren’t popularly sought. Today we say, “an 18th-century woman entomologist who published her own drawings of her scientific observations? Yes please!” But in the 1980s, such works were met with a shrug.

This year my company established a book collecting prize for women aged 30 and under with an eye toward demonstrating that great collections don’t have to be valuable tomes kept behind glass. Our first winner collects romance novels.

6. WE HATE IT WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT A BOOK’S SMELL.

We’ve all held a beloved old book and smelled the pages, taking in that vanilla-like aroma. It’s cozy. It’s peaceful. It reminds us of rainy days, blankets and tea, secret gardens. And it’s not relevant to most rare books. That particular smell comes from the lignin in cheaply produced paper, a chemical introduced when wood pulp was added to papermaking processes in the 1840s. For most of the history of printed books—over 500 years—a book with a smell means mold, or dirt, or any number of unpleasant materials that have been rubbed into the pages over the years. Smells are a red flag that something is wrong. We do not want our books to smell. Walking into our shop and remarking on the smell is like exclaiming, “Your books are gross!”

7. WE DON’T USE WHITE GLOVES. AND WE’RE NOT SORRY.

A senior specialist for rare books and manuscripts at Christie's holds a copy of former President George Washington's personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights in 2012
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This is probably the single biggest misconception about rare books. Random strangers yell at me for it all the time. In fact, it was established years ago that gloves weaken your tactile sensitivity. That means you're much more likely to tear a page, or otherwise damage the book (like, heaven forbid, dropping it) while wearing them. Instead, conservationists simply recommend handling them with washed and well-dried hands. This myth has been perpetuated by the exceptions: A very small percentage of materials, like metal bindings and photographic film, do require gloves. But rare book curators from such institutions as the Harvard library system and the British Library [PDF] have made it very clear that white gloves have no place in a rare book room.

8. DIFFICULT CLIENTS DON’T GET OFFERED THE BEST MATERIAL.

Say you’ve acquired the find of a lifetime. You know there are at least three collectors who would jump for the chance to add it to their library. Who gets the first offer? The guy who beats you up about your price and denigrates the material as part of his haggling strategy, or the guy who smiles and asks you how you’ve been before you get to the serious talk? Many collectors think haggling gets them the better deal, but it’s a dangerous game: Become too difficult or stressful to work with, and you will get fewer phone calls from the dealers who find the material you want to buy.

9. THERE IS AN ASSOCIATION OF ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSELLERS, WITH BYLAWS AND A CODE OF ETHICS.

Two men at the Park Avenue Armory during the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
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If you’re a new rare book dealer, one of your most important goals is getting into the ABAA, or the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. You must demonstrate a record of professional dealings for at least four years in order to apply. Current members are surveyed and asked whether new applicants pay their bills, accurately describe their material, and run their business ethically. Once you join the ABAA, there are a number of important perks. Besides carrying the seal of approval in the American rare book trade, you are eligible to showcase your inventory at the ABAA-organized book fairs, including the biggest one in the country, at the Armory in New York City. For some dealers, the sales from the New York book fair alone can make up 25 percent to 50 percent of their annual revenue.

10. IT’S NOT JUST OLD WHITE MEN. BUT IT IS PRETTY MUCH ALL WHITE.

In this business, dealers in their 40s are considered the young whippersnappers. But the new generation of younger dealers is making its presence felt, especially in handling material outside the traditional canon of dead white men: LGBTQ material, African Americana, women’s history, pulp publications, punk ephemera [PDF], and more.

Women are making significant inroads as well. While there have always been formidable women at the top of the rare book trade, we’re seeing an increasing number of women running their own businesses or being offered equity in established firms. We also recently established a successful schedule of networking events to provide support, mentoring, and business opportunities for women in the trade.

We still have a major problem with racial diversity, however. The trade is taking steps to attract and train people from underrepresented groups, but we have a long way to go. One of the most important new developments is the Belle da Costa Greene scholarship, named after J.P. Morgan’s brilliant book buyer and librarian, who was African-American. It is awarded annually to a person from an underrepresented or disadvantaged community to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, commonly known as “Bookseller Bootcamp” for dealers.

11. MANY RARE BOOK DEALERS ARE ALSO SCHOLARS IN THEIR CHOSEN FIELDS.

A bookseller at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Many of the best rare book dealers specialize in particular subject areas. Because of their endless research with primary source materials, they earn a reputation of expertise in that topic. One famous example is the 20th century rare book dealer Madeleine Stern, who tracked down Louisa May Alcott's pseudonyms in her search for material to sell and discovered that the author of Little Women had for years been writing sensational "blood and thunder" stories—19th century pulp fiction—under a pen name.

12. MOST COMPANIES ARE PRETTY MUCH MOM-AND-POP SHOPS.

Many rare book dealers are one- or two-person operations. Only a small fraction of companies have three or more employees. A company is huge if it has over ten people. On the one hand, this gives the job a decidedly anti-corporate atmosphere: Many of us joke that we are unemployable elsewhere. On the other hand, it also means we do everything needed to run the business, from shipping to website design, on our own. Besides the bootstrapping, it also means living with the risks of a small business. For example, I know of only a handful of rare book firms who offer health insurance or some kind of retirement plan. Frankly, most of us plan to keep dealing until we drop dead mid-sale.

13. RARE BOOK DEALERS ARE ONE BIG FAMILY.

This is a small world. We all know each other. The ABAA is made up of perhaps 400 active members across the nation. Many of my best friends are fellow dealers, even if they live across the country. We see each other a few times a year, mostly during book fairs, where we celebrate our regular reunions with lots of alcohol. We know which dealers have chronic money problems, which are most likely to be casually sexist, and whom we can go to in a crisis. We know each other’s strengths, so we’ll often refer people with books to sell to a colleague who specializes in that subject. ABAA book fairs, in many ways, are like Thanksgiving dinner with extended family. We may not all get along, but we all made the same decision: to try making a living in this odd world, risking our livelihood to help save and preserve history.

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11 Secrets of Romance Writers
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Some readers may snicker at book covers featuring aerobicized men and titles like The Firefighter’s Woman or The Bull Rider’s Christmas Baby. But if it weren’t for the steamy, escapist fantasy of romance novels, a healthy portion of the publishing industry would cease to exist: According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romantic fiction brings in $1.08 billion annually and accounts for 13 percent of all fiction sales in the marketplace.

What keeps readers coming back for more? We asked some of the genre’s top authors for insight into the “secret baby" trope, why pen names are necessary, and the one rule of romance that can never, ever be violated.

1. THEY WEAR PERIOD CLOTHING.

Novelist Shelley Adina (A Lady of Resources, A Lady of Integrity) writes historical, Amish, and steampunk-themed fiction, just a few of the many sub-categories that appeal to niche audiences. To better understand her characters, Adina dresses in period outfits to gather what she calls “tactile details.”

“I like to feel how a heroine would feel in the clothes,” she says. “I’ve been laced into a proper corset and you realize what kind of dance steps you can do, or why a lady’s back never touches a chair—a tight corset won't allow it."

2. THE REASON THEY USE PEN NAMES ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK.

Covers of two romance novels by Shelley Adina
Shelley Adina

The authors of romance novels don't use pen names out of embarrassment. Adina (a.k.a. Adina Senft) says that pseudonyms—many authors have more than one—help readers compartmentalize writers who generate multiple series. “People who read Amish fiction may not read steampunk,” she says. Another, bigger reason: Bookstore software can use “kill orders” on authors who don’t sell a certain number of titles. If they fall below parity, retailers will automatically stop ordering more copies from that author. “If that happens,” she says, “you have to reinvent yourself with a new name.”

3. THEY’LL DIGITALLY REVISE THEIR WORK AFTER PUBLISHING IT.

The analog publishing model has traditionally been one of permanence: Once a book is in print and in readers' hands, there's no going back. But romance novel readers are a very particular clientele with certain expectations about how they’d like their protagonists to behave—and the self-published digital distribution model that's popular within the genre allows for a little customization. Author Heather C. Leigh (the Famous series) found that out when her first books featured a heroine who was a little too acerbic. “My first three books sold well, but there were critiques that my female lead was too sarcastic,” she says. “I understood and took it out. I don’t mind making work better based on feedback.”

4. COVER MODELS OFTEN LOSE THEIR HEADS.

The covers of two romance novels by Heather C. Leigh
Heather C. Leigh

Despite seeing hundreds of new titles published every month, the romance genre still manages to find new ways to visualize their shirtless male protagonists. In many cases, though, the beefcake winds up getting decapitated. “A lot of times, the man will be turned away or cut off at the forehead,” says author Eliza Night (The Conquered Bride series). “Readers want to imagine his looks in their own mind.” Grooming is also a necessity. “I had a cover with chest hair once. My readers did not like it.”

5. THEY HAVE BONUS SCENES.

Self-published authors (who make up about two-thirds of the total romance e-book revenue on Amazon) spend much of their time marketing their work. To help maintain interest from their existing readership, some send out email newsletters with updates on new titles and include exclusive passages that can enhance the experience of a previous book. “My first book was about an actor who had to do a love scene with a woman he hated,” Leigh says. “It was never going to be in the book because that was from his girlfriend’s point of view, but I got a chance to write it as a bonus.”

6. THEY WANT READERS TO BECOME WRITERS.

While resources for aspiring writers of all genres are plentiful, the romance field makes an exceptional attempt to recruit new talent. Industry interest group RWA doubles as a conduit between established writers and novices, hosting conferences and panels on the best ways to break in. “We don’t live in a competitive hierarchy,” Adina says. “There are so many readers with so many diverse tastes. It’s a big community where we support one another.”

7. THEY GET HELP FROM THE AMISH.

An Amish woman walking in a field
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While the Amish sub-genre has received media attention for its peculiarity, Adina doesn't believe it's so unusual: She says readers are attracted to a pastoral environment “without having to leave their wired-up house.” For accuracy’s sake, the author has enlisted an Amish reader to vet her titles for details. The popularity of the books “mystifies them,” she says. “They don’t understand the interest. They just hope the books might be able to point people to God.”  

8. THE “SECRET BABY” TROPE IS A READER FAVORITE.

Readers like resourceful women and skilled, wealthy love interests—and they especially like it when the former keeps their baby a secret from the latter. “The trope is that the hero and heroine have an affair, she gets pregnant, never tells him, and he comes back around five, 10, or 20 years later and finds out,” Adina says. “Reunion stories are popular. It’s the appeal of a responsible man.”

9. THEY’RE HISTORY GEEKS.

The cover of a romance novel by Eliza Knight
Eliza Knight

Knight cringes at the idea romance authors do little more than transcribe their own lurid fantasies. A self-described “history geek,” she travels frequently for research into Scottish history. “Most of us who write history nerd out on it,” she says. While once writing about a zeppelin-riding heroine, Adina jumped into one that offered rides over Silicon Valley to see how it would feel. She also got her motorcycle license for the same reason. “We’re serious about it,” Adina says. “We’re not sitting around in housecoats with barking Pomeranians.”

10. THEY’D APPRECIATE NOT BEING ASKED ABOUT THEIR SEX LIFE.

Many romance authors have at least one story to tell about people in their private life finding out they write for the genre and subsequently losing any sense of boundaries. “Strangers have asked me, ‘Do you test out scenes before you write them?’” Leigh says. “It’s like they lose a filter. It’s not real life. J.K. Rowling isn’t a wizard.”

11. THERE’S ONE RULE THAT CAN NEVER BE BROKEN.

While writing instructors invariably have all kinds of techniques for nourishing a story, the romance genre spells it out in an unequivocal manner. According to the RWA, nothing can be considered a “romance novel” without a central love story (naturally) and what authors have come to refer to as the Happily Ever After ending, or HEA. “Romance is a courtship story,” Adina says. “Readers expect the bond will be created at the end of the book. If not, it’s Nicholas Sparks or Romeo and Juliet. It would be like having a mystery where the detective doesn’t solve the case.”

This story originally appeared in 2016.

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15 Secrets of Fireworks Designers
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The Fourth of July just wouldn't be the same without the colorful peonies, waterfalls, and comets that burst across the night sky above wowed crowds. But designing fireworks and their choreographed displays is a labor-intensive, dangerous job that requires the imagination of an artist and the precision of an engineer. Mental Floss talked to two experts in the field to learn how fireworks designers plan their shows, the history and the chemistry behind their displays, and why you don't necessarily want more bang for your buck.

1. THE ROOTS OF THEIR PROFESSION GO BACK OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

Humans have been adding bright, noisy explosions to their celebrations by setting fire to chemicals since at least 9th-century China. The very first fireworks were little more than quick orange bursts emanating from bamboo rods packed with charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate and tossed into bonfires. Slowly, these contraptions progressed into flares cannon-fired into the sky by “firemasters” in medieval England. By 1830s Italy, the use of metal salts such as strontium, barium, copper, and sodium added vivid reds, greens, and blues to firework displays—a precursor of the brilliant hues we see today.

2. THEY CONSIDER THEMSELVES ARTISTS.

“Fireworks are our paint or our clay, and our canvas is the night sky—or a building, or a bridge, or a waterway,” says fifth-generation fireworks designer Phil Grucci, CEO and creative director of the Bellport, New York-based Fireworks by Grucci. The company has created fireworks displays for seven consecutive U.S. presidential inaugurations, Olympic games in Beijing and Los Angeles, and commemorations such as the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, among other events. “Working with space, understanding color and the dynamics within the fireworks, what moves very quickly, what sounds very loud, what sounds very soft, what is subtle and elegant”—all of it takes an artist's touch, Grucci says.

Pyrotechnic designers “can visualize exactly how various fireworks devices will burst in the sky,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. That means they know "how high [fireworks] will reach their apex and burst, how wide they will spread, and how long the effect will ‘hang,' or linger. They can then choose other fireworks to burst above, below, or on each side of an effect to create the image they wish to see across the sky."

Of course, "painting" with fireworks is a little trickier than using acrylics or oils, since the medium is explosive. "The difference [compared to painting] is that we’ve got something that’s dynamic, that moves, it’s constantly moving and it’s very temporary," Grucci explains.

3. THEY START WITH A PAPER SKETCH.

A red and green firework bursting in the night sky
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Old pros like Grucci may know from experience how certain fireworks will look together against a backdrop. But he still sketches out each segment of every show he designs with colored markers on paper. From there, he works with his team to set the show to music, then choreographs it using software called Visual Show Director. Next, his programmers create a script in SolidWorks and/or AutoCAD. “In the past,” Grucci explains, “we scripted it all on a piece of paper, and the pyrotechnicians installed the hardware from that same piece of paper." Now, he says, they can be "taking advantage of the computer age, to visualize [a show] to see whether the product works as you’ve designed it.” Finally, Grucci’s team generates the computer file that will electronically ignite the fireworks at showtime—much safer than the days when a human had to ignite the fuse.

But Heckman says that although the technology is useful, it's made fireworks performances a little more homogenous. "Before electrical firing, computer choreography and a reliance on imported product [mostly from China], I think fireworks companies' unique style was much more prevalent," she says. "Technology has somewhat leveled that out." A few companies do still have distinctive styles, she notes—even if those differences are usually only apparent to true fireworks aficionados.

4. SOME THINGS ARE STILL DONE BY HAND.

A fireworks cartridge contains a series of pellets called stars, which are cubes, spheres, or cylinders about an-inch-and-a-half long filled with explosive materials and color-producing chemicals and metals [PDF]. A star’s colors are formulated via computer, then pressed into a pellet shape by machine. But when it comes to arranging the stars in the casings that will be fired into the night sky, it's usually human hands doing the arranging. The pattern laid out inside the casing determines the pattern of the explosion—a heart-shaped firework blooms from stars arranged in a heart shape—and according to Grucci, automating the task to account for the enormous variety of available patterns would be too expensive. The task can be labor-intensive, since a single shell can contain hundreds of stars.

5. THE VENUE DETERMINES HOW THEIR SHOW WILL UNFOLD.

Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge in 2018
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's as true in fireworks as it is in real estate: It's all about location. That’s partly for reasons of safety—Heckman says that every show has to follow industry standards for “tables of distance,” which “mandate the size of the largest shell that can be fired safely from a standpoint of fallout distance to spectators, and also public highways, occupied buildings, and public roads.” She says there's a complex regulatory scheme that dictates the type of products that can be used per type of venue, as well as when shows can begin and end.

But the site is also an integral part of the beauty and impact of the show itself. "We’re very aggressive in looking at structures, and trying to highlight their key features," Grucci says. “Whether it’s a tower, whether it’s a bridge, we will be [scouting from] the very highest point of that. If [a structure] is horizontal, I know that we are going to capitalize on the entire width of it. I could be easy and say, 'put some fireworks to the left and right side of a bridge.' But that’s not good enough. We have to take advantage of the undercarriage of a bridge, the steel cables that hold its towers together, and highlight the entire structure.” Grucci says he'll often calculate the entire surface area of a structure, so he can make sure he's taking advantage of every square inch.

6. THEY MATCH THE FIREWORKS TO THE MUSIC.

Not all fireworks displays have music, but when they do, the score and the effects should complement each other—not clash. A delicate classical piece may call for smaller, quieter fireworks, while a piece like the "1812 Overture" might fit bigger, louder bangs.

"So many of the [effects] we’re working with, they may have a baroque feel to them," Grucci says. "They’re very bold and strong and very in-your-face, but then you have that very elegant feel to some of the fireworks, that you would never put onto the canvas when there’s a rock-n-roll sequence on. When the product is so simple or so elegant, it would not match that tempo or that thematic."

7. THEY HAVE HIGH-TECH TESTING FACILITIES.

An assortment of colorful fireworks bursting in the sky
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Say you want to create a streaking green comet with a silver twinkling tail. “We’ll make that on a small scale, then we’ll test it at one of our two test sites, in upstate New York or in Virginia,” Grucci says. “Our pyrotechnicians are in protective bunkers and we have high-speed video cameras, wind meters, and dB [decibel] meters for noise. We record everything that we’re testing, so that we can look back on that and analyze it. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve failed. But we failed at the test site—never on the performance stage.”

8. THEY DON'T REPEAT THEMSELVES.

“My desire is to always make something that’s different,” Grucci says. He tries not to repeat a particular scene more than once in a performance, let alone repeat a whole show—although he notes that it helps that the "canvas" is always changing: “Even though we may use a particular beautiful color scheme with a metallic glitter, putting that on the Washington Monument as opposed to [over] an open baseball field—those are two completely different visuals.” One of his newest innovations turned up in the presidential inauguration in January 2017: a 600-foot by 700-foot display behind the Lincoln Memorial, made up of a series of 800 fireworks shells that burst in sequence into an American flag. “The color red [we used] is from a formula that is probably a few hundred years old," he says. "But delivering these little red dots on the sky at these [different] heights is what [allowed us to create the flag].”

9. LESS CAN BE MORE.

Fireworks at the opening of the New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas
JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

"Sometimes people get caught in the trap of thinking that more is better," Grucci says, but when it comes to the number of fireworks in a performance, it can be exactly the opposite: More shells equals more smoke, which can white-out the night sky. "When you put too much in the sky ... you’re not really allowing the medium to display the beauty of what the product is about," Grucci says. (Plus, the metallic particles in fireworks smoke can pose a health risk for people with asthma or other health problems, which means it's wise to limit smoke where possible.)

10. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LINGO.

Fireworks designers love to borrow from nature for the names of their displays. In addition to peonies and chrysanthemums, which both burst into circles (chrysanthemums have longer tails), there are willows (bursts with trails of gold or silver stars), falling leaves (glowing embers that flicker as they tumble to earth), fish (which leave little squiggles of light), spiders (a hard burst with straight, flat legs), and palms (which bursts up and out in a shape like its namesake tree). But there are also fountains (showers of sparks, sometimes also called gerbs), comets (several long trails of sparks), crossettes (a comet that breaks into other comets, usually creating a cross shape), dragon eggs (a delayed crackle effect), salutes (a loud noise without a display), and strobes (which burst with a blinking effect).

While creating their show, fireworks designers may work with cake (a single fuse that lights several fireworks in a sequence), whistle mixes (a combination of potassium and sodium benzoate that burns noisily), and dark fire, which is used to allow a star to change from one color to another (it gives off no light as it burns, allowing the new color layer to ignite below it). They hope to avoid flowerpots (which burst prematurely) and stars that are blown blind—or fail to ignite at all.

11. DANGER IS (UNFORTUNATELY) THEIR MIDDLE NAME.

Fireworks manufacturing presents an enormous danger. In 2016, Slate reported on a preponderance of deadly fireworks-making accidents in China—with an average of 400 workers in fireworks production plants dying every year between 1986 and 2005. Elsewhere, fewer accidents seem to happen than one might expect from the mixing and storing of combustible chemicals. According to Heckman, in the U.S. at least, that’s because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “stringently regulates the manufacturing process, including personal protective gear, and employers must train their personnel on the hazards and the [kind of gear that’s] required.”

“We’re mixing powders to create explosive compositions that have to be handled very delicately," Grucci says. The work has to be done in a non-sparking environment (one with special tools and materials that reduce the risk of sparks), and in a room that has plenty of exits. "[You don’t want to be in a] big, giant room filled with fireworks and there’s only one door to get out," Grucci says. Workers in their factory wear conductive shoes, which conduct static electricity through the footwear and into the ground, "because the environment is very dry and you wouldn’t want to walk across the floor and touch something and have an arc spark that goes to a box of open powder and explodes on you.”

Safety is paramount for Grucci, who lost his father, James, in a massive industrial accident in 1983 at the family fireworks plant on Long Island. He says that the secret to safety, from manufacturing through installation, is to “be consistent and never cut a corner.” He says his grandfather always told him, "As soon as you think you know it all, or you want to start cutting corners, [that's] when potentially you’re increasing your odds of getting injured or possibly killed."

12. SOMETIMES THEIR FAVORITE WAY TO WORK IS SMALL.

Yes, it’s a challenge to produce a 30-minute fireworks show off five barges in the middle of Manhattan’s East River—but intimate shows present their own set of hurdles. Grucci mentions a Dolce & Gabbana fashion event held around Lincoln Center’s fountain that he created pyrotechnics for this spring. The flaming bits were a mere 15 feet from the audience and the clothing that was showcased in Lucite boxes. In that kind of scenario, “You can’t afford to have the hard outer casing or the inner paper wrappings” you’d use at an aerial fireworks event over the river, Grucci says. “The last thing you want is debris falling on the audience.” The solution: stationary fireworks comprised of titanium and aluminum particles of a sub-micron size, which burn quickly and don’t sustain heat for more than a few milliseconds—sort of like a sparkler.

13. THEY BREAK RECORDS.

World fireworks records include the largest fireworks display: 810,904 of them, fired off on January 1, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. And the most shells launched per minute: 479,651 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013. And the longest fireworks waterfall (a long, glittering shower of embers): 11,539 feet, 5 inches, at a fireworks festival in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2008. On New Year’s Eve 2018, the Gruccis broke the world record for the world’s largest single aerial shell at a show they produced on Al Marjan Island in UAE. Weighing 2397 pounds, it was the culmination of almost 40 years of Grucci family trial and effort. “My father attempted the world record for the largest firework back in 1979 [with] a 42-inch-diameter white magnesium cascading flower that we displayed down in Titusville, Florida," he says. "Guinness gave him the world record, but it didn’t launch to the height or break to the size that he wanted it to. He always wanted to retry that and I had the opportunity this past New Year’s Eve to give my family another crack.”

14. THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT (OR PASTEL).

Research is underway on fireworks that are quieter—which could cause less stress to animals, children, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—as well as fireworks that are kinder to the environment by using cleaner, nitrogen-based fuel.

But those aren't the only innovations shaping the future of fireworks. Shapes are changing, too; look for letters and corporate logos. Designers now also have a host of softer and more diverse colors at their disposal. “In the early ‘80s we started developing colors in between ROYGBIV, the basic colors, so now we can produce lemon and tangerine and chartreuse and aqua and every color within the spectrum,” Grucci says. They do so by fiddling with the purity of the metals used and the size of their particles—which also change other parts of their overall effect. Large particles of metals like titanium, iron, and aluminum result in large “splinters” and a glittery effect, Grucci says, while smaller particles lead to fewer splinters and “a very bright light.” He notes that at this point, they can "get pretty much any Pantone color" in a fireworks composition.

15. THEY LOVE TO SEE AMAZEMENT ON THE FACES OF AUDIENCES.

People watch the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks from outside Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2015
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

“I think a crowd, in general, appreciates a lot of action—variations in colors and noise; and pattern shells such as smiley faces, hearts, and dice are always pleasers,” Heckman says. According to Grucci, “This is a very serious business. But it’s colorful and it’s beautiful and it has great, great energy. When we go to a performance, we can see an 80-year-old man and a 5-year-old granddaughter watching the show and their expressions are pretty much the same.” In that moment, “They both [become] children.”

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