How the last sparkler manufacturer in America has survived and made a town shine.In an industrial area of Youngstown, Ohio, that’s crisscrossed with railroad tracks and the skeletal frames of old warehouses sits a one-story factory surrounded by a chain-link fence. A caged watchdog stationed near the front door barks loudly at approaching visitors. The expansive building, quiet during the cold winter months, comes alive every spring with manufacturing clanks and buzzes that echo through the space.
Each year, from April to October, nearly 20 workers sweat as they mix iron filings, boric acid, barium nitrate, aluminum powder, cornstarch and water into a slurry; dip lengths of wires into the liquid; and bake the concoctions in a 110-degree oven. The wires are then dipped and baked again, inspected and the rejects thrown away. This is how sparklers, the mild yet enthralling novelty fireworks that spew colorful bursts of light, are made at Diamond Sparkler Manufacturing Co. — sometimes up to 800,000 a day during peak season. The seven-month production cycle — held during the warm months to ensure enough humidity for the sparklers to dry properly — reaches its height just before Independence Day, when more sparklers are lit than any other time of year.
But while many of us have come to associate the awe-inspiring pyrotechnics with the Fourth of July — the most American of holidays — their origins can actually be traced back to 11th-century China, when, according to former executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association John Conkling, Ph.D., scholars discovered how to make spark effects with potassium nitrate, sulfur and bits of charcoal.
What’s more, not only are sparklers hardly an American invention, they’d no longer be an American-made product were it not for Diamond Sparkler, the last remaining sparkler maker in the United States. The small Youngstown manufacturer is single-handedly keeping the flame alive for American sparklers — and helping boost the spirit of a town that could use a little light.