Americans love the Fourth of July. A 2011 Harris Poll found that out of all of the holidays, American’s ranked it as their fourth favorite - beaten out by two obvious winners: Christmas and Thanksgiving, followed by Halloween (guess everyone loves costumes and candy, huh?).
It makes sense though that the Fourth of July is high up on our list of favorite celebrations since it is a uniquely American holiday meant to celebrate our history as a nation. In fact, our most iconic Fourth of July tradition, lighting up the night sky with sparkling, dazzling, fireworks have been a part of Independence Day celebrations since our Founding Fathers first signed the papers declaring our nation independent of England. But how did fireworks become so intertwined with our sense of celebrating American patriotism?
In reality, fireworks have a long history outside of the United States. The origin of fireworks can be traced to an entirely different continent centuries before Americans started using them to celebrate their national freedom. They have a long history of lighting up the sky for celebrations all around the globe, both big and small.
It’s believed that the very first fire crackers were used in 200 B.C. during China’s Han dynasty. Early users were thought to have stumbled across a natural firecracker by roasting bamboo stalks in a fire until they turned black and began to sizzle. Once thoroughly charred, the bamboo would explode with a loud bang as a result of the heating of air pockets in the hollow stalks. These noise makers were used to ward off evil spirits. In Mandarin, the word for firecracker, “bhaozhu”, even translates to exploding bamboo.
A little less than a thousand years later Chinese alchemists began adding gunpowder made from saltpeter to these exploding bamboo stalks. By doing so, the popping bamboo would also have a big flash from the gunowder. They would also add steel dust or cast iron to make a sparkle. And so the first fireworks were born!
As gunpowder spread west to Europe in the 13th century, so did fireworks. By the 15th century, they became a part of religious celebrations and public entertainment, especially by European rulers. It was only natural that as Europeans journeyed to new world, they would bring a recipe and a love of fireworks with them.
Founding father John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that Independence Day “...will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival” and that celebrants should display their joy with “...Pomp and Parade…Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” (Interestingly, Adams believed that July 2nd should be celebrated as the birthday of the new nation because it was the day the delegates voted in favor of the Independence resolution. He was so adamant in this belief, he actually declined all July 4th Celebration invitations.)
The following year, Philadelphia commemorated the anniversary of America’s Independence by adjourning Congress and celebrating with bonfires, bells, and, of course, fireworks. According to the Smithsonian.com, “This event had all of the elements of typical future celebrations–the discharge of cannon, one round for each state in the union, the ringing of bells, a dinner, the use of music, the drinking of toasts (it would subsequently be traditional to have one toast for each state in the union), ‘loud huzzas,’ a parade, fireworks, and the use of the nation’s colors, in this case the dressing up of “armed ships and gallies” in the harbor.”
Boston also held a celebration that year, possibly as a morale booster for the Revolutionary troops who were still in the thick of the battle for independence. From there, the tradition spread to other towns throughout the nation. After the War of 1812, the practice of celebrating July 4th with picnics, games, military displays, and fireworks, became even more common.
Today, over 14,000 fireworks displays light up the sky each 4th of July as we continue to enjoy the brilliant, booming traditions of our fourth favorite holiday.
And the rest, as they say, is *American* history.