The Peterkins Celebrate the Fouth of July
by Lucretia P. Hale
THE day began early.
A compact had been made with the little boys
the evening before. They were to be allowed to usher in the
glorious day by the blowing of horns exactly at sunrise.
But they were to blow them for precisely five minutes only,
and no sound of the horns should be heard afterward till the
family were downstairs.
It was thought that a peace might thus be
bought by a short, though crowded, period of noise.
The morning came. Even before the morning, at
half-past three o'clock, a terrible blast of the horns
aroused the whole family.
Mrs. Peterkin clasped her hands to her head
and exclaimed: "I am thankful the lady from
Philadelphia is not here!" For she had been invited to
stay a week, but had declined to come before the Fourth of
July, as she was not well, and her doctor had prescribed
And the number of the horns was most
remarkable! It was as though every cow in the place had
arisen and was blowing through both her own horns!
"How many little boys are there? How
many have we?" exclaimed Mr. Peterkin, going over their
names one by one mechanically, thinking he would do it, as
he might count imaginary sheep jumping over a fence, to put
himself to sleep. Alas! the counting could not put him to
sleep now, in such a din.
And how unexpectedly long the five minutes
seemed! Elizabeth Eliza was to take out her watch and give
the signal for the end of the five minutes, and the ceasing
of the horns. Why did not the signal come? Why did not
Elizabeth Eliza stop them?
And certainly it was long before there was no
dawn to be seen!
"We will not try this plan again,"
said Mrs. Peterkin.
"If we live to another Fourth,"
added Mr. Peterkin, hastening to the door to inquire into
the state of affairs.
Alas! Amanda, by mistake, had waked up the
little boys an hour too early. And by another mistake the
little boys had invited three or four of their friends to
spend the night with them. Mrs. Peterkin had given them
permission to have the boys for the whole day, and they
understood the day as beginning when they went to bed the
night before. This accounted for the number of horns.
It would have been impossible to hear any
explanation; but the five minutes were over, and the horns
had ceased, and there remained only the noise of a singular
leaping of feet, explained perhaps by a possible pillow-fight,
that kept the family below partially awake until the
bells and cannon made known the dawning of the glorious
day,--the sunrise, or "the rising of the sons," as
Mr. Peterkin jocosely called it when they heard the little
boys and their friends clattering down the stairs to begin
the outside festivities.
They were bound first for the swamp, for
Elizabeth Eliza, at the suggestion of the lady from
Philadelphia had advised them to hang some flags around the
pillars of the piazza. Now the little boys knew of a place
in the swamp where they had been in the habit of digging for
"flag-root," and where they might find plenty of
flag flowers. They did bring away all they could, but they
were a little out of bloom. The boys were in the midst of
nailing up all they had on the pillars of the piazza when
the procession of the Antiques and Horribles passed along.
As the procession saw the festive arrangements on the
piazza, and the crowd of boys, who cheered them loudly, it
stopped to salute the house with some especial strains of
Poor Mrs. Peterkin! They were directly under
her windows! In a few moments of quiet, during the boys'
absence from the house on their visit to the swamp, she had
been trying to find out whether she had a sick-headache, or
whether it was all the noise, and she was just deciding it
was the sick headache, but was falling into a light slumber,
when the fresh noise outside began.
There were the imitations of the crowing of
cocks, and braying of donkeys, and the sound of horns,
encored and increased by the cheers of the boys. Then began
the torpedoes, and the Antiques and Horribles had Chinese
And, in despair of sleep, the family came
down to breakfast.
Mrs. Peterkin had always been much afraid of
fire-works, and had never allowed the boys to bring gun-powder
into the house. She was even afraid of torpedoes;
they looked so much like sugar-plums she was sure some the
children would swallow them, and explode before anybody knew
She was very timid about other things. She
was not sure even about pea-nuts. Everybody exclaimed over
this: "Surely there was no danger in pea-nuts!"
But Mrs. Peterkin declared she had been very much alarmed at
the Centennial Exhibition, and in the crowded corners of the
streets in Boston, at the pea-nut stands, where they had
machines to roast the pea-nuts. She did not think it was
safe. They might go off any time, in the midst of a crowd of
Mr. Peterkin thought there actually was no
danger, and he should be sorry to give up the pea-nut. He
thought it an American institution, something really
belonging to the Fourth of July. He even confessed to a
quiet pleasure in crushing the empty shells with his feet on
the sidewalks as he went along the streets.
Agamemnon thought it a simple joy.
In consideration, however, of the fact that
they had had no real celebration of the Fourth the last
year, Mrs. Peterkin had consented to give over the day, this
year, to the amusement of the family as a Centennial
celebration. She would prepare herself for a terrible
noise,--only she did not want any gunpowder brought into the
The little boys had begun by firing some
torpedoes a few days beforehand, that their mother might be
used to the sound, and had selected their horns some weeks
Solomon John had been very busy in inventing
some fireworks. As Mrs. Peterkin objected to the use of
gunpowder, he found out from the dictionary what the
different parts of gunpowder are,--saltpetre, charcoal, and
sulphur. Charcoal, he discovered, they had in the wood-house;
saltpetre they would find in the cellar, in the beef
barrel; and sulphur they could buy at the apothecary's. He
explained to his mother that these materials had never yet
exploded in the house, and she was quieted.
Agamemnon, meanwhile, remembered a recipe he
had read somewhere for making a "fulminating
paste" of iron-filings and powder of brimstone. He had
written it down on a piece of paper in his pocket-book. But
the iron filings must be finely powdered. This they began
upon a day or two before, and the very afternoon before laid
out some of the paste on the piazza.
Pin-wheels and rockets were contributed by
Mr. Peterkin for the evening. According to a programme drawn
up by Agamemnon and Solomon John, the reading of the
Declaration of Independence was to take place in the
morning, on the piazza, under the flags.
The Bromwicks brought over their flag to hang
over the door.
"That is what the lady from Philadelphia
meant," explained Elizabeth Eliza.
"She said the flags of our
country," said the little boys. "We thought she
meant 'in the country.'"
Quite a company assembled; but it seemed
nobody had a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Elizabeth Eliza said she could say one line,
if they each could add as much. But it proved they all knew
the same line that she did, as they began:--
"When, in the course of--when, in the
course of--when, in the course of human--when in the course
of human events--when, in the course of human events, it
becomes--when, in the course of human events, it becomes
necessary--when, in the course of human event it becomes
necessary for one people"--
They could not get any farther. Some of the
party decided that "one people" was a good place
to stop, and the little boys sent off some fresh torpedoes
in honor of the people. But Mr. Peterkin was not satisfied.
He invited the assembled party to stay until sunset, and
meanwhile he would find a copy, and torpedoes were to be
saved to be fired off at the close of every sentence. And
now the noon bells rang and the noon bells ceased.
Mrs. Peterkin wanted to ask everybody to
dinner. She should have some cold beef. She had let Amanda
go, because it was the Fourth, and everybody ought to be
free that one day; so she could not have much of a dinner.
But when she went to cut her beef she found Solomon had
taken it to soak, on account of the saltpetre, for the
Well, they had a pig; so she took a ham, and
the boys had bought tamarinds and buns and a cocoa-nut. So
the company stayed on, and when the Antiques and Horribles
passed again they were treated to pea-nuts and lemonade.
They sung patriotic songs, they told stories,
they fired torpedoes, they frightened the cats with them. It
was a warm afternoon; the red poppies were out wide, and the
hot sun poured down on the alley-ways in the garden. There
was a seething sound of a hot day in the buzzing of insects,
in the steaming heat that came up from the ground. Some
neighboring boys were firing a toy cannon. Every time it
went off Mrs. Peterkin started, and looked to see if one of
the little boys was gone. Mr. Peterkin had set out to find a
copy of the "Declaration." Agamemnon had
disappeared. She had not a moment to decide about her
headache. She asked Ann Maria if she were not anxious about
the fireworks, and if rockets were not dangerous. They went
up, but you were never sure where they came down.
And then came a fresh tumult! All the
fire-engines in town rushed toward them, clanging with bells, men
and boys yelling! They were out for a practice and for a
Mrs. Peterkin thought the house was on fire,
and so did some of the guests. There was great rushing
hither and thither. Some thought they would better go home;
some thought they would better stay. Mrs. Peterkin hastened
into the house to save herself, or see what she could save.
Elizabeth Eliza followed her, first proceeding to collect
all the pokers and tongs she could find, because they could
be thrown out of the window without breaking. She had read
of people who had flung looking-glasses out of the window by
mistake, in the excitement of the house being on fire, and
had carried the pokers and tongs carefully into the garden.
There was nothing like being prepared. She had always
determined to do the reverse. So with calmness she told
Solomon John to take down the looking-glasses. But she met
with a difficulty,--there were no pokers and tongs, as they
did not use them. They had no open fires; Mrs. Peterkin had
been afraid of them. So Elizabeth Eliza took all the pots
and kettles up to the upper windows, ready to be thrown out.
But where was Mrs. Peterkin? Solomon John
found she had fled to the attic in terror. He persuaded her
to come down, assuring her it was the most unsafe place; but
she insisted upon stopping to collect some bags of old
pieces, that nobody would think of saving from the general
wreck, she said, unless she did. Alas! this was the result
of fireworks on Fourth of July! As they came downstairs they
heard the voices of all the company declaring there was no
fire; the danger was past. It was long before Mrs. Peterkin
could believe it. They told her the fire company was only
out for show, and to celebrate the Fourth of July. She
thought it already too much celebrated.
Elizabeth Eliza's kettles and pans had come
down through the windows with a crash, that had only added
to the festivities, the little boys thought.
Mr. Peterkin had been roaming about all this
time in search of a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
The public library was shut, and he had to go from house to
house; but now, as the sunset bells and cannon began, he
returned with a copy, and read it, to the pealing of the
bells and sounding of the cannon. Torpedoes and crackers
were fired at every pause. Some sweet-marjoram pots, tin
cans filled with crackers which were lighted, went off with
At the most exciting moment, near the close
of the reading, Agamemnon, with an expression of terror,
pulled Solomon John aside.
"I have suddenly remembered where I read
about the 'fulminating paste' we made. It was in the preface
to 'Woodstock,' and I have been round to borrow the book
to read the directions over again, because I was afraid
about the 'paste' going off. READ THIS
QUICKLY! and tell me, Where is the fulminating
Solomon John was busy winding some covers of
paper over a little parcel. It contained chlorate of potash
and sulphur mixed. A friend had told him of the composition.
The more thicknesses of paper you put round it the louder it
would go off. You must pound it with a hammer. Solomon John
felt it must be perfectly safe, as his mother had taken
potash for a medicine.
He still held the parcel as he read from
Agamemnon's book: "This paste, when it has lain
together about twenty-six hours, will of itself
take fire, and burn all the away with a blue flame and a bad
"Where is the paste?" repeated
Solomon John, in terror.
"We made it just twenty-six hours
ago," said Agamemnon.
"We put it on the piazza,"
exclaimed Solomon John, rapidly recalling the facts,
"and it is in front of our mother's feet!"
He hastened to snatch the paste away before
it should take fire, flinging aside the packet in his hurry.
Agamemnon, jumping upon the piazza at the same moment, trod
upon the paper parcel, which exploded at once with the
shock, and he fell to the ground, while at the same moment
the paste "fulminated" into a blue flame directly
in front of Mrs. Peterkin!
It was a moment of great confusion. There
were cries and screams. The bells were still ringing, the
cannon firing, and Mr. Peterkin had just reached the closing
words: "Our lives, our fortunes, and
our sacred honor."
"We are all blown up? as I feared we
should be," Mrs. Peterkin at length ventured to say,
finding herself in a lilac-bush by the side of the piazza.
She scarcely dared to open her eyes to see the scattered
limbs about her.
It was so with all. Even Ann Maria Bromwick
clutched a pillar of the piazza, with closed eyes.
At length Mr. Peterkin said, calmly, "Is
There was no reply. Nobody could tell whether
it was because everybody was killed, or because they were
too wounded to answer. It was a great while before Mrs.
Peterkin ventured to move.
But the little boys soon shouted with joy,
and cheered the success of Solomon John's fireworks, and
hoped he had some more. One of them had his face blackened
by an unexpected cracker, and Elizabeth Eliza's muslin dress
was burned here and there. But no one was hurt; no one had
lost any limbs, though Mrs. Peterkin was sure she had seen
some flying in the air. Nobody could understand how, as she
had kept her eyes firmly shut.
No greater accident had occurred than the
singeing of the tip of Solomon John's nose. But there was an
unpleasant and terrible odor from the "fulminating
Mrs. Peterkin was extricated from the lilac-bush.
No one knew how she got there. Indeed, the thundering
noise had stunned everybody. It had roused the neighborhood
even more than before. Answering explosions came on every
side, and, though the sunset light had not faded away, the
little boys hastened to send off rockets under cover of the
confusion. Solomon John's other fireworks would not go. But
all felt he had done enough.
Mrs. Peterkin retreated into the parlor,
deciding she really did have a headache. At times she had to
come out when a rocket went off, to see if it was one of the
little boys. She was exhausted by the adventures of the day,
and almost thought it could not have been worse if the boys
had been allowed gunpowder. The distracted lady was thankful
there was likely to be but one Centennial Fourth in her
lifetime, and declared she should never more keep anything
in the house as dangerous as saltpetred beef, and she should
never venture to take another spoonful of potash.