How Fireworks Became a Fourth of July Tradition

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Although fireworks make appearances at New Year’s Eve celebrations, sporting events, and even weddings, their big day is unquestionably the Fourth of July. But how did the explosive displays come to be associated with Independence Day in America? And when did that start? Here’s what to know about the country’s loudest tradition.

When were fireworks invented?

Firecrackers originated in China almost 2,000 years ago, and involved heating bamboo stalks (and the air inside them) until they turned black, and then exploded under the pressure. Then, sometime between 600—900 B.C.E., Chinese alchemists began filling the bamboo stalks with gunpowder—a combination of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal—creating an early version of the type of fireworks still used today.

When did fireworks come to America?

Fireworks started making their way to Europe via the Silk Road trading route in the 13th century, and were used primarily for religious and royal celebrations, including Anne Boleyn’s coronation as Queen of England in 1533. Roughly 200 years later, colonists brought gunpowder-based fireworks to America.

Why are fireworks associated with the Fourth of July?

On July 3, 1776—prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, let alone the colonies actually achieving independence from Great Britain—John Adams provided written instructions for how future Independence Days should be celebrated:

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.

One year and one day later, the first official Fourth of July fireworks display took place over the city of Philadelphia, with Boston following in 1777—despite the fact that the Revolutionary War was still underway, and American independence wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

By 1783, fireworks had become available to the general public, further cementing the Independence Day tradition. Today, an estimated 14,000 fireworks displays take place across the country every Fourth of July, to the great lament of dogs everywhere.

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