How did fireworks become a fixture in the United States? And in particular, why are they in heavy use on the Fourth of July?
Well, in order to answer the question, we must look at the history of fireworks. The history of fireworks is commonly traced back to ancient China.
The History of Fireworks in China
In China, firecrackers were initially used for spiritual purposes. They eventually were used for celebrations and in war.
The Use of Bamboo Shoots to Ward off Spirits
According to legend, the Chinese began throwing bamboo stalks in fires during the Han Dynasty in 200 B.C. The bamboo was heated until it turned black and the air pockets in the hollowed out sticks would produce a loud boom. This made bamboo shoots “natural firecrackers.” They were thus thrown in fires in order to ward off evil spirits.
The Accidental Creation of Gunpowder
Between 618 and 907 A.D., Chinese alchemists stumbled upon an early form of gunpowder by mixing saltpeter (potassium nitrate), charcoal, and sulfur. The alchemists were trying to create an elixir for eternal life, but soon realized this could be used to ward off evil spirits. This gunpowder mixture was then stuffed in bamboo in order to produce a loud bang when the bamboo stalks were thrown into fires.
According to author Simon Quellen Field:
The first gunpowder was low nitrate, so it burned slowly, much like our Roman candles today, and didn’t have enough power to make a big bang.
Alternatively, paper shells were used to create firecrackers. Field said the first paper firecrackers may have been made in Liuyan in China’s Hunan province. Li Tian is often credited as the first person to craft these types of fireworks.
The Use of Firecrackers in War and for Celebrations
For a time, the early firecrackers were still used to ward off evil spirits and during special celebrations. By the 10th century A.D., fireworks became a tool of war. The Chinese would attack fireworks to arrows aimed at enemies and create crude bombs. By the 1100’s, the Chinese would start to use guided explosives, which were essentially the first rockets/missiles.
The Western Influence
Recipes for gunpowder traveled westward as the Silk Road was opened up to trade and Mongols traveled to Europe in the 13th century. Parts of Europe and Arabia were given access to gunpowder samples and formulas by diplomats, explorers, and Franciscan missionaries (including Italian explorer Marco Polo).
The technology would be expanded by scientists, metallurgists, and military leaders in the West. As they made more potent gunpowder, they would be used in muskets and cannons.
Fireworks were especially enjoyed in Medieval England. Queen Elizabeth I created the position of firemaster, a person who would specialize in producing pyrotechnic displays. Firemasters had assistants that were called “green men” who also doubled as jesters to entertain the crowds while fireworks displays were being set up.
The job of the green man was dangerous. Green men wore caps made of leaves in order to protect their heads from sparks. They often died or sustained injuries when they lost control of fireworks displays.
Early European Celebrations
Over the centuries, fireworks would be commonly used in Europe and parts of Asia to celebrate military victories and special events and to enhance religious ceremonies.
- In 1486, fireworks were used on Henry VII’s wedding day; that was the earliest recorded fireworks display.
- In 1533, fireworks were used in the coronation of Anne Boleyn as Queen of England.
- Pyrotechnics were used in the “Girandola” display at the Castello Sant’Angelo in Rome.
- In 1685, James II’s coronation was marked with a remarkable display. The display was so dazzling, the firemaster was later knighted.
- French kings would regularly use pyrotechnics at palaces, including at Versailles.
- Russia’s Czar Peter the Great used a five-hour display to mark the birth of his son.
The Renaissance and Beyond
Pyrotechnic schools arose across Europe during the Renaissance but it would be the Italians who took fireworks to new heights.
Originally, fireworks basically looked like … fire. They had bursts of orange and faint gold light. In the 1830’s, Italians added metals and other chemicals to give fireworks more colors and produce other effects. Italy soon became famous for its elaborate and colorful fireworks displays.
Immigrating Italians would later take their technology to the Americas during the 1870’s.
Fireworks in the New World
Fireworks soon became popular in the United States as Europeans traveling to the New World brought the technology with them.
It was once rumored that Captain John Smith called for the first fire display at Jamestown in 1608. Whether or not that’s true, they were in use even before the American Revolution.
On July 3, 1776, John Adams predicted that fireworks would become a permanent fixture in the United States. In a letter, Adams told his wife he believed there would be elaborate celebrations to commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
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.
It turns out he was right, as fireworks were used on July 4, 1777 when the first Independence Day fireworks display was held in Philadelphia. We do have elaborate displays on July 4 and pyrotechnics have become an American Independence Day tradition even since.
Fireworks are not only used in the United States on July 4, but for many important celebrations. Like many countries around the world, we set off fireworks to celebrate the start of New Year’s Day.
We also mark holidays like Memorial Day and important events like presidential inaugurations with pyrotechnics. The Inauguration Day display itself is a tradition, since even George Washington’s was marked by fireworks.
Fireworks are fun, but before I conclude this post, I want to remind everyone to be safe. While some people might go to view public displays, many more will enjoy private displays and set off their own fireworks.
The National Council on Fireworks Safety reminds people to take precautions when using fireworks. This includes using legal fireworks and having water nearby to safely dispose of used fireworks.
The organization also reminds people to be mindful of pets before partaking of fireworks displays or setting off fireworks.
Additionally, another WordPress blogger I met at The Blogging Meetup shared some tips and links about pet safety during fireworks displays. Those who have pets need to know that pets do not like the sound of fireworks. In fact, many go missing if they are near fireworks displays.
No matter what you do, I hope my fellow Americans enjoy a happy and safe Independence Day.
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Clark, Mary Lee. “A brief history of fireworks.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. 1 July 2017. Web. Retrieved 4 July 2017. <http://www.richmond.com/entertainment/a-brief-history-of-fireworks/article_09db1c0e-4f43-5e94-a42c-fbf7c1e4bb50.html>.
Cohen, Jennie. “Fireworks’ Vibrant History.” History.com. A+E Networks; 2011. Web. Retrieved 4 July 2017. <http://www.history.com/news/fireworks-vibrant-history>.
“Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, ‘Had a Declaration…’ [electronic edition].” Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. Web. Retrived 4 July 2017. <https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760703jasecond>.
National Council on Fireworks Safety. Web. Retrieved 4 July 2017. <http://www.fireworksafety.com/>.
“Safety For Your Pet During Fireworks.” Animals Are Feeling Beings, Too. 2 July 2017. Web. Retrieved 4 July 2017. Web. <https://animalsarefeelingbeingstoo.com/2017/07/02/safety-for-your-pet-during-fireworks/>.
Waxman, Olivia B. “How Fireworks Became a Fourth of July Tradition.” Time. 3 July 2017. Web. Retrieved 4 July 2017. <http://time.com/4828701/first-fireworks-history-july-4th/>.