So do you ever wonder how it all started? I mean, why do we celebrate the Fourth of July by lighting up the sky with fireworks? You may know the reason, but do you know the history? Well, as it happens it can be traced back to an exact day. On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife that the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be celebrated. In fact, the exact words he used were “great anniversary festival… Solemnized with pomp and parade… from this time forward forever more.” So with that it began. The first 4th of July was a noisy celebratory event. The earliest fireworks were made primarily from black powder and were essentially flash bangs designed to celebrate with loud noise. Musket and cannon fire also made appearances as well.
However, the tradition did not stop there. A mere year later, Congress decided to ordain the tradition. In Philadelphia, they set off a fireworks display that concluded with 13 rockets being lit on the commons. This of course was a nod to the 13 states. This was different than previous celebrations where the muskets and artillery exhibitions were a mere carryover from colonial days. This was a statement of solidarity. This numerical symbolism would become very important as a part of July 4th celebrations held each year.
Pyrotechnics begin to emerge as a career choice at the turn of the 18th century. Most of the great ones came over from Italy and brought their skill with them. This was also a time when we begin to see fireworks being sold to the general public. By the late 1700s, merchants in Philadelphia were selling fireworks to just about anybody who had the money to purchase them on the street.
From there, the tradition began to spread to other cities. They begin to compete for the most colorful and grand display. New York became the undisputed leader during the 1876 Centennial. They reportedly had 15 separate fireworks displays throughout the city. That’s pretty impressive. From that time on, massive staging platforms were produced. They were decorated with iconic Independence Day images of bells, flags, and other red, white, and blue decor.
Will the Celebrations Get Even Bigger?
Today, we may not have the grand platforms that were common in the mid-1800s, but we have something much better. Today, we have massive colorful displays that fill entire city skylines and last for 30 minutes or longer. You have to wonder what our founding fathers would think of these types of celebrations. Did John Adams know on July 3, 1776 that his “great anniversary festival” would transform into a national holiday filled with patriotic music, boisterous military displays, proud Americans, great backyard barbecues, and enormous firework displays that he never could have imagined? It’s enough to make you wonder what celebrations will look like in another 100 years. How much more grand, how much more patriotic will they be? Will Michigan take a spot as a state known for epic displays or will places like Las Vegas and New York reign supreme. It’s America, anything can happen. Only time will tell. Until then, we will celebrate as we always have, lighting up the night sky while we enjoy some barbecue and god company.