Ever since the first anniversary of Independence Day, Americans celebrated the holiday with fireworks. When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, John Adams predicted that “this day will be celebrated…with parade, guns, bonfires, and fireworks, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” The newly created United States was not the first country to use fireworks for special occasions, however.
Many historians believe that the Chinese invented fireworks by accident approximately 2,000 years ago. One legend claims that a cook mixed charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter together (all common kitchen ingredients back then). The combination of these chemicals created gunpowder—the key ingredient in fireworks. Eventually someone stuffed gunpowder into bamboo shoots and threw them into the fire. The result was a large BOOM, and the first fireworks were invented. The Chinese used the loud noises to scare away evil spirits.
The explorer Marco Polo may have brought gunpowder back to Europe in the late 1200s after visiting China. In medieval England, using gunpowder to create fireworks became popular as a way to celebrate military victories. Later, they were used during various special events, such as King Henry VII’s wedding day.
By the 1500s, some Englishmen made a living by setting up fireworks displays to entertain audiences. These experts were called firemasters. Their assistants, known as Green Men for their green leaf caps and green costumes which helped them blend in with the displays, were responsible for setting off the fireworks. Green men also told jokes to crowds and tried to keep people from getting too close to the displays. Despite their humor, the Green Men were always in danger. They could be injured or killed if the fireworks failed to rise into the air or went off at the wrong time.
Fireworks experts from various European countries brought their knowledge to America. They quickly became part of Fourth of July celebrations, though some people complained about the noise. On July 4, 1866, a man living in Germantown Pennsylvania wrote, “July 4th is the most hateful day of the year, when the birth of democracy is celebrated by license and noise. All last night and all of today, the sound of guns and firecrackers around us never stopped.”
Throughout the early 1900s, many American adults and children suffered injuries or died from lighting fireworks. To prevent injuries to non-professionals, many states created laws that made setting off fireworks illegal. Professional displays like the one at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., however, are legal everywhere.