Follow the Crooked Path From Fireworks to Candy to…Corpses?

This article was originally published in August 2016, but is there a better time for fireworks than Fourth of July Weekend? We think not.

Today, for your amusement, a magic trick: I will take fireworks and turn them into candies, thus proving that the times I nerd-sniped myself while researching and lost days following random trails through oddball books was actual research, thank you very much, and not procrastination. (Also I did get three different books out of this insanity. Obligatory mention: one of them, The Left-Handed Fate, is available now. Now, back to the magic.)

So: Fireworks into candies. Here we go.

I began to study fireworks for my second book, The Broken Lands, looking explicitly for links between it and alchemy. Those links weren’t hard to find—I was studying Chinese alchemy, the history of modern fireworks leads directly to China, and the timelines of these two types of chemical praxis overlap by at least a hundred and fifty years, so it isn’t shocking that there would be some overlap between formularies and techniques. The connections continue in the west: fireworks came into their own in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries, a time when practical chemistry had deep ties to alchemy. Pyrotechnicians often used the language of alchemy and spoke of their work and the effects they created animistically, in terms of life and generation and essence; ambitious artificers forced fire to interact with other elements in their displays.

But what I didn’t expect to find was a connection to candy, which turned out to provide a missing piece two years later when I was drafting The Left-Handed Fate. And I didn’t expect to have that same research send me down a rabbit hole reading about corpse medicine for the book I’m drafting now. But more on that in a minute.

Studying fireworks lead me to the shared space between munitions and decorative explosives. Gunners and artillerists were looked down upon as basically unskilled laborers until they began applying their chemical and geometrical capabilities to magnificent public displays of artistry. So the gunner became the artificer, and instead of manipulating black powder, saltpeter, and charcoal for the sake of destruction, the former cannonier or artillerist turned to crafting miracles—fountains of fire, rains of stars, meteors, dragons. And wheels, like the spinning Catherine wheel, named after the torture device that flew to pieces rather than participate in the death of Catherine of Alexandria. In The Broken Lands I have a protagonist, a fireworker who explains that she loves Catherine wheels because she wants to believe that beauty and joy can exist even in the presence of a troubled past. The links between fireworks and munitions led me to give her adoptive uncle and mentor a childhood aboard a privateer in The Left-Handed Fate, where his love of explosives wars with his pacifism. Bright things have dark sides.

So, okay, now we have fireworks and alchemy. Alchemy (pick almost any tradition) takes one to the roots of modern medicine; after all, it wasn’t all transmutation and immortality—alchemical elixirs also existed which addressed specific diseases and health concerns. Studying early medicine leads to death rituals, lapidary, cosmetics and candy-making, at which point it’s hard to be surprised by the long list of ingredients shared by alchemists, embalmers, apothecaries, jewelers and confectioners.

The history of confectionery in particular is a history of medicines and miracles. To give just a couple examples, licorice was a medicine long before it was a candy—as far back as Ancient Egypt. Candy historian (!! WHAT A GREAT JOB) Tim Richardson cites a medieval recipe for scrofula made from licorice and snails. The marsh mallow plant was used medicinally for thousands of years before a confectioner in the nineteenth century whipped the plant extract into the pillowy deliciousness we pop into hot chocolate. Honey, when not used as a remedy itself, was used to mask the bitterness of other medicines, and was also associated with miracles.

The history of confectionery is dotted with purported elixirs of life and other miraculous substances. Richardson describes a second-century Indian medical concoction compounded from “ginger, liquorice, long pepper, gum Arabic, ghee, honey and sugar: ‘One remains young for a hundred years, improves one’s memory, and overcomes all diseases. In such a man’s body even poison becomes innocuous.’” The mysterious sweet called manus christi, which plays a role in The Left-Handed Fate, is another such example. Manna might be considered one, too: Exodus describes this “bread,” which melted under the midday sun, as thin flakes, white, something like coriander seed and tasting like wafers made with honey. (Coriander seed, by the way, later became a confection in its own right: in later ages whole seeds would be coated with candy to make confits.) So, historically, much of what we now call candy derived from substances intended to be taken therapeutically. Which is what I tell myself every time I discover I’ve eaten an entire bag of chocolate-covered almonds in a single sitting.

Like other medicinal preparations (and alchemical preparations, and cosmetic preparations) these concoctions were often made richer with powdered gems or flakes of precious metals. Or made potent with still stranger ingredients, like usnea, or moss grown on a human skull. Bone marrow, human or otherwise. Bodily fluids of literally every kind—urine was especially useful because it could be used as-is or reduced in order to extract phosphorus. Mummy, which could mean several different things but mostly meant exactly what you think it means. Fat, human or otherwise, which had a ton of uses including in the making of facial cream. Blood, human or otherwise, but ideally human and from a young body that died violently no more than three days ago, preferably without hemorrhage. (Hanging was good—it forced the vital spirits up into the head, which enriched the brain for medicinal use—or breaking on the wheel was fine, too.) Blood marmalade was a thing, as was something that sounds a lot like fruit leather made from thickened, dried strips of human blood. I could go on, but this is already way over the word count I’m supposed to be turning in, and you might be reading this over lunch or something.

So … I started with fireworks and we’re at corpses. How the heck do you get back to candy from here?

If the customer could afford them, human tissue-based elixirs, like less ghastly medicines and many confections and cosmetics, often included ingredients that are still staples of the well-stocked spice cabinet, as well as a dazzling array of gems and precious metals. Here, as in cosmetics (then as now), some of this was due to a pervasive belief that rare and precious substances must also impart positive effects if ingested; some was pure salesmanship, meant to increase the perceived value of a preparation; and some was actually based on observed and “known” effects. And, of course, some ingredients were there to make a vile preparation smell, taste, or feel better going down—although in some cases that wasn’t necessarily a selling point. When sailors got treated, for example, they wanted to know they were getting physicked. The viler the taste, the better—which was good because it wasn’t like they (or their surgeons) could afford the rich stuff anyway.

So to get from fireworks to candy: Shaved ivory was added to certain fireworks formulations to create a shimmery effect; burned ivory plus pearl plus the “skull of a man newly dead of some violent death” was used to treat “female convulsions” in a 17th century medical treatise; and powdered pearl was an occasional ingredient in the mysterious antique confection called manos christi.

Fireworks, like baking, requires fairly precise chemistry, so ingredients like ivory shavings and amber actually do something specific. Confectionery and medicine walk a middle line—some concoctions require precision, and some can tolerate a bit of whimsy and tarting up with gold flakes. Alchemy lives in this middle ground, too: there’s true chemistry, and then there’s stuff that carries a whiff of the miraculous, where ingredients are more symbolic than functional. But between these seemingly disparate worlds there are overlaps in ingredients and intentions, places where science and the miraculous mix like vinegar, honey, and baking soda to create something strange and unexpected and wondrous and maybe delicious, if it doesn’t kill you in the making or break your teeth in the eating. (Seriously, have you ever tried to make honeycomb candy?)

Or, okay, fine, vinegar has uses in fireworks and in candy, so you can get there in one step. But do you really want to cut out the corpses and miracles?

I didn’t think so.

Extremely abbreviated bibliography:

  1. Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History by Simon Werrett (University of Chicago Press)
  2. Great Clarity: Daoism and Alchemy in Early Medieval China by Fabrizio Pregadio (Stanford University Press)
  3. Sweets: a History of Candy by Tim Richardson (Bloomsbury)
  4. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: the History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians by Richard Sugg (Routledge)

Top image: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

LeftHandedFateKate Milford is the New York Times bestselling author of the award-winning Greenglass House as well as five other novels for young readers, including The Left-Handed Fate (Henry Holt). She has written for stage and screen, and as a contributing writer at Nagspeake she has authored scholarly articles on subjects as diverse as self-aware ironmongery and how to make saltwater taffy in a haunted kitchen. She also occasionally remembers to update her own website, Clockwork Foundry.


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