Independence Day and The History of Fireworks

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.

U.S. Independence Day Celebrations

By now your family has probably made plans for the July Fourth holiday. Maybe you have a tradition of seeing the fireworks display in your community, or having a barbeque or picnic. Colonial Americans also celebrated the Fourth, although they did so somewhat differently than we do today. One year after the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia celebrated Independence Day with bells, bonfires, and fireworks. Music and speeches were part of the festivities, too. Independence Day did not become a nationwide holiday immediately, however. Massachusetts became the first state to make the Fourth of July a statewide holiday in 1781.

Independence Day celebrations gained popularity in the 1800s, especially during the war of 1812 when the U.S. fought Britain again. By the time the 50th anniversary of independence came, however, some people expressed concern that the occasion would not be dignified. Although there were no television ads promoting retail store sales like today, people worried that the Fourth’s semi-centennial would be observed “in the usual way, that is, by frying chickens, firing away damaged powder, or fuddling our noses over tavern wine.” Instead the states made plans for dinners, parades, and readings of the Declaration. In 1870, Congress made July 4th a federal holiday.

Since the 1800s, the Fourth of July became an occasion for family barbeques and fireworks displays that grew increasingly elaborate. Some families, however, have fun but also have traditions that emphasize the importance of the holiday to our nation. For example, the family of Liz Seymour gathers for a family reunion each year on Cape Cod. After swimming and enjoying good food, her uncle brings out a copy of the Declaration of Independence and passes it around so each person, including the kids, reads a passage or two.

However your family decides to celebrate on July 4th, take a moment to be grateful for the freedoms we have thanks to those who signed the Declaration of Independence and those who continue to fight for the U.S. on battlefields across the world.

Why We Celebrate Independence Day on July 4th

In 1776 John Adams wrote to his wife: “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival…It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” As we know, Adams was a couple of days off in his prediction that American independence would be celebrated on July 2nd. He did have reason to believe his prediction would come true, however. On July 2, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress first voted to declare independence from Britain.

Their decision was based on the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately for Jefferson, the next two days were spent listening to Congress’ objections to certain aspects of the Declaration. Like a writer being criticized by a room full of editors, Jefferson sulked but said little as Congress chipped away at his writing. Among the passages it eliminated was one on the evils of the slave trade and another on the crimes the British people in general had committed against Americans. The most famous passage of all, however, remained untouched except for the substitution of one word:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

On July 4, 1776, Congress approved their revised version of the Declaration. No one in Congress at the time seemed to particularly note the occasion; Adams left no record of his thoughts on that date and Jefferson only wrote that he went shopping. The next day, however, broadside editions of the Declaration were available to the public and on July 6, the Pennsylvania Evening Post printed the full text on its front page. That first year that the Declaration came out American patriots celebrated on July 8th because that is when most heard the news of the break from Britain. Since then, however, Americans have celebrated the day the revised Declaration was passed, with all the pomp and parade that Adams had hoped.