American tradition: Why do we set off fireworks on the Fourth of July?
Fireworks are a staple of many Independence Day celebrations. The enormous, colorful displays light up the night sky all across the U.S. – everything from private displays to world-famous pyrotechnics shows such as the one held in Boston.
But, how did fireworks become a great American Independence Day tradition?
The modern displays we know today originally came from China. The very earliest forms came from a discovery almost 2,000 years ago when people would heat bamboo stalks until they blackened and exploded under the pressure of heated air inside them.
These would have been the original “firecrackers,” but true gunpowder-fueled explosives didn’t come until a bit later – sometime between 600 A.D. and 900 A.D., when alchemists in China started filling stalks of bamboo with the explosive substance.
Rockets red glare
The first “rockets” were originally used as military weapons, starting with an improvement to the fire arrow which included affixing small packets of gunpowder to the arrow.
These were produced by the Chinese in the 12th Century, but they were very unpredictable and dangerous to use.
It’s from the developments of gunpowder explosives and primitive rockets the colorful explosives we know today came from. Over the years, alchemists started adding new ingredients to the mix, like iron shavings and steel dust, to give fireworks their sparkle.
As centuries passed, Chinese fireworks became popular elsewhere in the world, too.
The Silk Road, which allowed for trade between Europe and the East, saw the secrets of gunpowder and fireworks making their way to Europe in the 13th Century.
During the Renaissance, Europeans used them at various celebrations. Anne Boleyn’s coronation as Queen of England in 1533 featured a large fireworks display, and in particular, Peter the Great and King Louis XIV were big fans of fireworks, noted for using them in a variety of European celebrations.
An American tradition
Our current fascination with Fourth of July fireworks has its roots deep in American history. Even before the final version of the Declaration of Independence was signed, John Adams envisioned great celebrations in the future, ones which would include fireworks.
In fact, in the same letter, referenced above, which he wrote on July 3, 1776 – just the day before the Continental Congress adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence – he said festivities should include “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forever more.”
Those illuminations he referred to? You guessed it – fireworks!
It is also said, fireworks displays were used as morale boosters for soldiers in the Revolutionary War.
At the time, however, fireworks were the same type of explosives used in war and were called rockets, not fireworks. And so, colonists celebrated the fourth even before they knew if they would win the war.
Fireworks were further popularized in the late 1700s by politicians who had displays at their speeches, and they became a firmly established tradition by the 1800s.
Although July 4, 1776 didn’t see any fireworks, in 1777, the first Fourth of July fireworks were lit over Philadelphia’s night sky.
The Pennsylvania Evening Post wrote this of the celebration, “The evening was closed with the ring of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks which began and concluded with 13 rockets on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.”
Boston also held a display in 1777, and from there, the tradition took off. By 1783, the public could purchase all kinds of fireworks for their own Fourth of July celebrations.
From those early celebrations, displays have grown and become extraordinary feats of pyrotechnics. These days, estimates from the American Pyrotechnics Association say more than 14,000 fireworks display glitter in America’s night sky on Independence Day.
Fireworks may have started as a Chinese invention 2,000 years ago, but they’ve been a part of American traditions since the very founding of this nation.
As technology improves and pyrotechnics technicians work hard to put on bigger and more beautiful displays each year, this is one American tradition that will just keep growing!
This article was originally published in the 2023 Farmer’s Almanac.