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Trying to Spark Interest in Fireworks

June 09, 1988|RONALD L. SOBLE | Times Staff Writer

"If it goes 'Bang!' I'll buy it."

That's the slogan of Dennis Manochio, one of only a handful of collectors of 4th of July memorabilia in this country.

Manochio, 46, a resident of the Northern California community of Saratoga, has a collection bursting, so to speak, with colorful fireworks package labels, fireworks catalogues, posters, books, cap pistols--just about anything produced in conjunction with this country's national birthday. There are no actual fireworks in the packages in his collection.

"No one's really taken on this subject and looked at it," he said. "This is a treasured thing that should be important to everyone."

Worked as a Chemist

Manochio, who for years was in the fireworks business working as a chemist, is now a gourmet food distributor. Both professions run in his family.

"Half of my family was in fireworks, and the other half was in the pasta business in Italy," he said in a recent telephone interview. "My grandfather was a professional fireworks maker."

As a fireworks historian--Manochio is the official fireworks historian for the American Pyrotechnic Assn. in Chestertown, Md.--he noted that the first use of fireworks in this country was by the Dutch at Plymouth Rock, when they fired off a rocket upon making their historic landing.

The significance of the fireworks industry goes beyond its connection with a national holiday, he added. Actually, he said, "the toy business (in the United States) came about because of the fireworks business."

Manochio estimated his collection is worth about $200,000. Among the most valuable items, he said, are about 400 fireworks catalogues, the oldest published in 1853 in Boston by Sanderson & Lanengunn. Two other old-line firms that spawned valuable catalogues, he said, were the Spencer and Banner fireworks companies, both based in Ohio.

He said his most valuable catalogue was published in 1879 by the Unxld Fireworks Co. of New York, once the country's largest fireworks producer. The five-page fold-out catalogue, he said, shows hot-air balloons dropping fireworks during a 4th of July celebration.

For display purposes, Manochio mounts his fireworks packages in photo albums and said he may show his collection this July 4th at San Francisco's Antique Toy Museum.

Among the historic names in his collection are the California Fireworks Co. of South San Francisco, a firm with roots predating the Civil War, and V. J. Tovatt Co. of Los Angeles, in business for about three decades until the mid-1970s, which has a clipper ship on its labels.

A package label that has eluded Manochio was produced by Pensick & Gordon of Los Angeles, a firm that was in business for about 35 years, until 1975.

"I've not been able to find anything on them, and they had a famous line of fireworks," he said. "They had four- and five-color labels that featured a Spirit of '76 logo." Manochio said he even went so far as to contact the family that once ran the firm, but, unfortunately, they said they never saved any of the company's packages.

Among his other items that once made a "bang," he noted, are cap pistols, cap bombs and miniature cannons. He said he even has a "cap cane," which, when loaded with a cap at the bottom and bounced on a hard surface, is as noisy as a small firecracker.

Hopes for a Museum

As a collector of 4th of July memorabilia, Manochio said he "looks for pre-1960 anything" to add to his collection, which, one day, he would like to house in an Americana type of museum.

Even though he worked in the industry for years, Manochio said he still gets a thrill watching a fireworks display featuring multicolored aerial explosions.

"I love 'em," he said. "Doesn't everyone?"

Manochio would like to hear from other collectors of fireworks memorabilia, or from anyone with questions on the subject. He can be reached at P.O. Box 2010, Saratoga, Calif. 95070.

Mail Bag

Readers into interesting collectibles want to locate others with similar interests:

P.C. of Port Hueneme says: "Over the years, I have collected police arm patches from various police departments nationwide. Rarely do I hear mention of collectors who also indulge in this collectible hobby."

And P.F. of Palos Verdes Estates notes that her cousin "is an avid collector of casino chips from gambling casinos around the world. He would like to be in contact with others who have the same hobby, but claims there is no organization or clearing house for people who collect these attractive chips. I claim that such an obvious item must have an organized group somewhere for trading, buying and selling. Am I right?"

Responses will be forwarded to these collectors.

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