Kate Farrell (author of Story Power) shares some fun facts about the 4th which also features the history of fireworks from China.
The Real Independence Day?
The Declaration of Independence was announced on July 4th, though the formal signing didn’t occur until August 2nd, and the colonies actually voted to accept it on July 2nd. So you may wonder – what day is the real Independence Day?
John Adams, who first proposed the idea of declaring independence from England, wrote a famous letter to his wife, Abigail, about how he believed July 2nd would be a day that was remembered and celebrated in America for years to come. Apparently everyone else remembered otherwise…
A Patriotic Death?
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Monroe, all died on a July 4th.
Three American presidents have died on the fourth of July. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day, in 1826, just hours apart. They had been rivals in everything, even about who would live longest. Adams’ last words were about his long-time foe: “Thomas Jefferson lives!” In fact, Jefferson had died just five hours earlier, but Adams hadn’t gotten the message. The two actually became friends in their later years, with extensive correspondence. Their letters to each other are published in several books.
James Monroe is the third president to die on July 4th, but he died in 1831.
Why Do We Set Off Fireworks On The Fourth Of July?
Fireworks are a staple of many Independence Day celebrations. The enormous, colorful displays light up the night sky all across the United States—everything from private displays to world-famous pyrotechnics shows such as the one held in Boston. But how did fireworks become a great American Independence Day tradition?
The modern displays that we know today originally came from China. The very earliest forms came from a discovery almost 2,000 years ago when people would heat bamboo stalks until they blackened and exploded under the pressure of heated air inside them. These would have been the original “firecrackers,” but true gunpowder-fueled explosives didn’t come till a bit later—sometime between 600 A.D. and 900 A.D. when alchemists in China started filling stalks of bamboo with the explosive substance.
Rockets’ Red Glare?
The first “rockets” were originally used as military weapons, starting with an improvement to the fire arrow that included affixing small packets of gunpowder to the arrow. These were produced by the Chinese in the 12th century, but they were very unpredictable and dangerous to use. It’s from the developments of gunpowder explosives and primitive rockets that the colorful explosives we know today came from. Over the years, alchemists started adding new ingredients to the mix, like iron shavings and steel dust, to give fireworks their sparkle.
Fireworks Come to Europe
As centuries passed, Chinese fireworks became popular elsewhere in the world, too. The Silk Road, which allowed for trade between Europe and the East, saw the secrets of gunpowder and fireworks making their way to Europe in the 13th century. During the Renaissance, Europeans used them at various celebrations. Anne Boleyn’s coronation as Queen of England in 1533 featured a large fireworks display, and in particular, Peter the Great and King Louis XIV were big fans of fireworks, noted for using them in a variety of European celebrations.
Fireworks—An American Tradition
Our current fascination with Fourth of July fireworks has its roots deep in American history. Even before the final version of the Declaration of Independence was signed, John Adams envisioned great celebrations in the future, ones that would include fireworks. In fact, in the same letter, referenced above that he wrote on July 3, 1776—just the day before the Continental Congress adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence—he said that festivities should include:
Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forever more.
Those illuminations that he referred to? You guessed it… fireworks!
It is also said, that fireworks displays were used as morale boosters for soldiers in the Revolutionary War. At the time however, fireworks were the same type of explosives used in war and were called rockets, not fireworks. And so colonists celebrated the fourth even before they knew if they would win the war. Fireworks were further popularized in the late 1700s by politicians that had displays at their speeches, and they became a firmly established tradition by the 1800s.
The First Fireworks Display
Although July 4, 1776, didn’t see any fireworks, in 1777, the first Fourth of July fireworks were lit over Philadelphia’s night sky. The Pennsylvania Evening Post wrote this of the celebration:
The evening was closed with the ring of bells, 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.
Boston also held a display in 1777, and from there, the tradition took off. By 1783, the public could purchase all kinds of fireworks for their own Fourth of July celebrations.
From those early celebrations, displays have grown and become extraordinary feats of pyrotechnics. These days, estimates from the American Pyrotechnics Association say that more than 14,000 fireworks display glitter in America’s night sky on Independence Day.
Fireworks may have started as a Chinese invention 2,000 years ago, but they’ve been a part of American traditions since the very founding of this nation. As technology improves and pyrotechnics technicians work hard to put on bigger and more beautiful displays each year, this is one American tradition that will continue to adapt.
Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories
Stories are everywhere. The art of storytelling has been around as long as humans have. And in today’s noisy, techy, automated world, storytelling is not only prevalent—it’s vital. Whether you’re interested in enlivening conversation, building your business brand, sharing family wisdom, or performing on stage, Story Power will show you how to make use of a good story.