It’s hard to imagine Independence Day without fireworks. But how did this tradition get started?
As it turns out, setting off mini-explosions of all shapes and colors (but particularly red, white and blue) on July 4 goes back almost as far as American independence itself.
Fireworks have a long and colorful history, but the story of how they became ubiquitous on July 4 dates to the summer of 1776, during the first months of the Revolutionary War. On July 1, delegates of the Continental Congress were in Philadelphia, debating over whether the 13 original colonies should declare their independence from Britain’s Parliament as well as King George III himself.
That night, news arrived that British ships had sailed into New York Harbor, posing an immediate threat to the Continental troops commanded by George Washington. On July 2, delegates from 12 colonies voted in favor of independence (New York would follow suit on July 9) and the motion carried. On July 3, even as Congress revised a draft of the declaration composed by Thomas Jefferson, an excited John Adams took up his pen to write to his wife, Abigail.
“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” Adams 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, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Adams was off by a couple of days.
On July 4, after making a total of 86 (mostly small) changes to Jefferson’s draft, Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence, though most of the delegates didn’t even sign the document until August 2. Some impromptu celebrations greeted the declaration’s first public readings on July 8, in front of local militia troops in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but the first organized celebration of Independence Day would take place in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777.
“Yesterday the 4th of July, being the anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America, was celebrated in this city with demonstrations of joy and festivity,” reported the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 5, 1777. “About noon all the armed ships and gallies in the river were drawn up before the city, dressed in the gayest manner, with the colors of the United States and streamers displayed.”
After each ship’s cannon fired a 13-gun salute (in honor of the 13 colonies), the festivities continued, including an elegant dinner, a military demonstration and a performance by a Hessian band. “The evening was closed with the ringing of bells,” the Evening Post reported, “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.”
Adams’s hometown of Boston saw its own fireworks display that July 4th, as Colonel Thomas Crafts of the Sons of Liberty took the opportunity to set off fireworks and shells over Boston Common. In the years to come, various cities continued the tradition of celebrating independence, holding picnics, parades, speeches and fireworks displays for the occasion, though Boston was the first to designate July 4 an official holiday (in 1783).
By the time Independence Day celebrations really took off after the War of 1812 (another conflict pitting the United States against Britain), fireworks were even more widely available. They would become an increasingly important part of the festivities in the years to come, as public safety concerns caused cannon and gunfire to be gradually phased out of celebrations.
In 1870, Congress established Independence Day as an official holiday. By 1898, a reporter would note that “the American Fourth of July is the greatest event the maker of firecrackers knows,” historian James Heintze recorded in The Fourth of July Encyclopedia.
As every July 4 brings numerous fireworks-related accidents, some causing injuries and even deaths, many cities and states would pass bans on different types of pyrotechnics; Adams’s native Massachusetts, for example, now bans all consumer fireworks. Despite these safety concerns, Americans spend somewhere around $1 billion on fireworks each July 4, allowing for a nationwide celebration of independence John Adams would surely have appreciated.