Why did we start using fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July?

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Marco Werman: July 4th in Washington, D.C., 2014.


[Excerpt from audio]


Werman: Ah, the grand finale. It was one of an estimated 14,000 fireworks displays across the country last year around this time. We take the pyrotechnics for granted, but I was kind of curious, when did this fireworks frenzy on the fourth get started and why? Well, luckily The World’s one-man history desk and resident gunpowder specialist, Chris Woolf, sits just a few feet away from me in the newsroom. So fireworks, Chris--what up?


Chris Woolf: Well, you can look right back to 1776 in a letter that John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigaile. And I’ll quote for you, if I may: “This day will be the most memorable Epocha 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 commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. 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, this the second day of July, 1776.”


Werman: “Second day of July”? What happened to the fourth day of July?


Woolf: Well, the second day was when Congress voted for independence, they approved the text on the fourth and rushed it to the printers.


Werman: Alright. In that letter by John Adams you just quoted, he says, “Bonfires and Illuminations-” no actual specific mention of fireworks. Is there a difference or is that what he meant?


Woolf: It’s not really clear. Bonfires everybody knows; illuminations is something that was unique kind of to the 18th century. Imagine colonial America--everything was dark, right? At night, there’s no light for illumination unless you’re very rich. And so when there was a big celebration in town, they would have an illumination, which was everyone was supposed to put lights in their windows--candles or something like that. Fireworks were kind of different obviously, but they kicked in pretty soon, because on July the fourth, 1777, you have fireworks displays to mark independence in both Boston and in Philadelphia.


Werman: So, when do fireworks start becoming more widespread? When do we have definitive proof that people were going out and buying firecrackers and roman candles for the fourth of July?


Woolf: Well, I mean, fire’s been used by mankind since the dawn of time for celebrations, and it’s still used all over the world by all cultures for special days, like Bonfire Night in England, Chinese New Year- And, in fact, it was the Chinese who first manufactured gunpowder. They would have traditional fire arrows for celebrations and they decided to put little boxes of gunpowder on it, which would blow up in the air; then they got to rockets, and then you get big extravaganzas of fireworks by the time of the Renaissance, 1500s. And then it skipped the Atlantic and around the 18th century. And there were plenty of examples of fireworks displays being used for celebrations. Even during the American Revolution, artillery officers would use the same black powder in their cannon and show off their skills as pyrotechnic masters, putting on firework displays for special days.


Werman: I think of the line in the Star-Spangled Banner, “The rockets’ red glare-” Is there anything to suggest that fireworks on the fourth of July are supposed to emulate the victory of wars of past years?


Woolf: In a sense, yes. I mean, that was what the first kind of rocket and gunpowder displays were about. They’d usually be accompanied by cannon fire, which is kind of less obvious now but you still see in the Boston Pops in the “1812 Overture.” Yeah, the fireworks spread kind of slowly. It started off after independence in New England, a little bit in New York, but really didn’t become more widespread until you get the Star-Spangled Banner written during the war of 1812, and the “rockets’ red glare” and all that. So, there was an association but it wasn’t really the main event for Independence Day.


Werman: If you go back to some of the early fireworks, what did they look like?


Woolf: Well, that’s one of the reasons it didn’t seem quite so spectacular, because until about the 1830s it was just orange and white flashes in the sky, which is kind of cool for, you know...


Werman: For the 1830s.


Woolf: ...Pre-industrial society. But it was only then in the 1830s that people discovered that if you put different kinds of metal in there, you could get different colors, and so it really takes off through the 19th century. I failed chemistry dismally, so I’m not going to be able to tell you what.


Werman: Sounds good. I’m going to definitely make sure you stay away from the chemistry lab tomorrow, though. What are you doing for the fourth, Chris?


Woolf: Well, I’ll be setting off my own gunpowder. As an American citizen now, I’m marching as a colonial militiaman in a small town parade and I’ll be firing my musket to celebrate our independence.


Werman: The World’s history guy, Chris Woolf. You have a blast tomorrow.


Woolf: Okay, thank you.