Monday, June 29, 2015

Get Fired Up for the Fourth of July!

When Americans prepare to celebrate the nation’s birthday this weekend, there’s one thing nearly everyone associates with the holiday, whether you have the chance to see them in person or not: fireworks.

The first "fireworks" were created by the Chinese, when they would set fire to bamboo and watch it explode because of the air pockets inside. Photo from  

And that’s how it should be, because fireworks have been part of America ever since European settlers made their homes here. According to legend, Captain John Smith set off the first fireworks display in Jamestown in 1608.

The use of fireworks at celebrations continued through the years, and was even mentioned by John Adams in a letter he wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776 – the day before the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

“The day will be most memorable in the history of America,” he wrote. “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…bonfires and illuminations [a term for fireworks]…from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”

The following year, the first fireworks displays commemorating Independence Day were seen on July 4, 1777. The Pennsylvania Evening Post wrote that in Philadelphia, “The evening was closed with the ring of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.” The paper noted that “Everything was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.”

That same year, fireworks also lit up the sky in Boston, where they were exhibited by Col. Thomas Crafts over the common. By 1783 a large variety of fireworks were available to the public. In 1784 one merchant offered a range of pyrotechnics that included “rockets, serpents, wheels, table rockets, cherry trees, fountains, and sun flowers.”

Today, fireworks light up the skies to mark a multitude of events across the country, including presidential inaugurations (going all the way back to George Washington’s), graduation ceremonies, sporting events celebrations, and other holidays such as New Year’s Eve. Enjoy yours this weekend, however you might see them.

Bonus history tidbit: When John Adams wrote his letter to Abigail, he actually was referring to July 2 as his predicted holiday, not July 4. That’s because July 2 was the day Congress voted for independence. The written document was completed on July 4 and taken to the printer. Historians say he printed that date at the top of the paper, so that’s how July 4 became the date associated with independence. The actual signing of the Declaration of Independence didn’t begin until August and continued until November. 

Happy birthday to America, whichever date you want to celebrate!