Backyard barbecues, parades with long-legged Uncle Sams, hot dog-eating contests … Americans know these events as traditional ways to celebrate Independence Day. Depending on the region, you might add in some local flair to mark the occasion (think boat parades and lobster races). But if there’s one tradition Americans across the 50 states look forward to on this historic anniversary, it’s the late-night fireworks celebrations. But why? Turns out, Americans have been setting off some form of pyrotechnics — from early monochrome sky bursts to modern, multicolor displays — since the very first Independence Day. Here’s how the tradition got started.
A Founding Father’s Call For Fireworks
By the time the Continental Congress formally declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, American colonists had been fully entrenched in a war with their mother country for over a year. In the months following the July 4 declaration, waves of British troops arrived on American shores, sparking battles with colonists who supported secession from the island across the sea. Even in the midst of occupation and war, some colonists recognized the importance of marking the new country’s official separation. In a letter to his wife Abigail, Founding Father John Adams expressed his hope that the day would eventually be widely celebrated, calling for “pomp and parade ... games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations.”
A year after Adams’ letter, Philadelphia became the first city to host large July 4 celebrations in 1777. Residents rang bells, held a parade, and fired cannons in honor of the 13 colonies. Illuminations — now known as fireworks — were a highlight of the event. Adams wrote to his daughter (also named Abigail) that the day was honored with naval displays, gun salutes, dinner with George Washington, and an evening walk enjoying candle displays and fireworks.
Colonists were familiar with fireworks thanks to their popular use in England, but the skyward displays Adams would have witnessed were more dull than the ones we marvel at today. Early illuminations may have been incredibly large but lacked color — they were essentially just orange explosions created using gunpowder-packed cartridges propelled into the sky from a burst of lit gunpowder. Once aerial, a burning fuse ignited the cartridge, creating an awe-inspiring burst. While the basic science of fireworks remains the same, the modern sparkles and hues we see today wouldn’t be possible until the 1830s, when Italian pyrotechnicians added metallic powders such as copper to gunpowder, producing colorful illuminations.
Celebrating the Fourth in Early America
Fourth of July celebrations were somewhat slow to spread throughout the United States. Small celebrations commonly featured music, parades, and bonfires, with gunfire salutes and fireworks shot off in honor of the 13 colonies. With the Revolutionary War still blazing, George Washington allotted Continental soldiers double rations of rum to celebrate in 1778. But even after the Revolutionary War’s end in 1783, Independence Day festivities stalled in a new country tasked with creating a functioning government; the Declaration of Independence was largely disregarded and forgotten by average Americans who instead recognized their state constitutions or local declarations.
More than three decades later, another skirmish with Great Britain — the War of 1812 — ignited a wave of American patriotism that nationally popularized the July 4 holiday. Festivities grew from small local celebrations scattered among the 13 colonies to common holiday events in the country’s early states, featuring public toasts and speeches, military displays, contests, and games. The summer holiday quickly became a go-to date for major events, such as the Erie Canal groundbreaking in 1817 and New York’s emancipation of all slaves in 1827.
With the Fourth’s increasing prominence, fireworks that were once harder to come by were more accessible. Compared to gun and cannon salutes that sometimes accidentally claimed lives, fireworks became a somewhat safer and more theatrical form of holiday entertainment.
Calls For Safe Fourth Festivities
Congress formally designated Independence Day a national holiday in 1870, nearly 100 years after its first celebration. With more festivities across the quickly expanding country, communities witnessed increasing numbers of fireworks-related injuries and accidents. The turn of the 20th century came with social pleas for "safe and sane Fourth” celebrations, with newspaper articles and published letters calling for an end to firecrackers and rockets altogether.
By 1911, cities such as Cleveland, Washington D.C., and Baltimore began outlawing fireworks to prevent injuries and fires. Those bans spawned the beginnings of large, city-organized fireworks shows that allowed crowds to more safely celebrate the holiday, along with regional contests, parades, and pageants that have become traditional holiday entertainment. Cities across the country began competing for the largest firework displays; Houston, Boston, and Chicago are known for some of the loudest and brightest celebrations hough being the best isn’t cheap. Professional firework shows can cost upwards of $2,000 per minute when paired with music and high-quality explosives — New York’s famed Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular costs an estimated $6 million for its half-hour show. New styles of fireworks, including eco-friendly bursts that reduce air pollution and 3-D choreography that perfectly sync shells to create images, can significantly increase the cost.
Americans collectively spent around $1 billion on fireworks in 2019, with sparklers being a top seller. But the largest non-governmental fireworks consumer in the country just so happens to be a magical place where you can catch a dazzling pyrotechnic display on the Fourth … and every other night of the year: Walt Disney World.