The big bang view of the Fourth of July, illustrated by tonight’s annual celebration on the Mall, may well have originated with John Adams. The nation’s birthday, he wrote in 1776 from Philadelphia, “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.”
To be sure, America didn’t inaugurate fireworks, whose fuse goes way back to the ancient Far East. And long before the American Revolution, European nations used fireworks to celebrate royal weddings or the signing of peace treaties.
By the 19th century, however, fireworks became synonymous with America’s Fourth of July festivities. Also synonymous with the holiday were numerous fires and personal injuries.
In the 1880s, for example, New York and other major cities were confronted with “firecracker and torpedo patriotism,” largely the occupation of young people who plied their activity for a full 24 hours on the holiday.
Even city ordinances imposing substantial fines ($5) for setting off any “rockets, crackers, squibs, or other fireworks containing any substance in a state of combustion” didn’t cut down on the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air.
Part of the big bang was attributable to the advance in firecracker technology. Reports in the late 19th century described “a comparatively new and positively diabolical kind of cracker, charged seemingly with dynamite.”
The traditional Roman candles had given way to “sky rockets” and “everlasting torpedoes” as well as to “winged darts,” the latter a real menace because they could be “thrown straight as an arrow for a considerable distance and will explode wherever they light, even upon so yielding a mass as the person of a portly citizen.”
Flying models often alighted on roofs or soared through open windows, causing fires that were extensive. In 1898, for instance, there were 40 such fires in New York City, including a real barn burner at the Lenox Livery stable.
Two movements emerged as a result of injuries and fires: Restricting the sale and use of fireworks and getting trained pyrotechnists to supervise public displays. By 1913, these efforts for a saner Fourth of July seemed to pay off, with Eastern cities reporting quiet celebrations.
However, as a result of World War I, the ability to make more impressive fireworks led to increased usage and injury.
A study in 1925 revealed 111 fatalities in 500 cities in 36 states, with St. Louis leading the injury list with 133. A critical observer in the same year estimated that since 1776 more Americans had been killed and injured in celebrating the Fourth than had been killed and injured in the entire Revolutionary War.
Some localities passed tougher restrictions. The onset of the Great Depression put a damper on July 4 activities. But by 1934, with the return of somewhat happier days, the flare of rockets returned and, along with them, a twofold rise in injuries.
In 1954, Congress passed a modest piece of legislation banning the shipment of fireworks into states already banning their sale. But an all-out prohibition campaign never developed.
If John Adams started the fireworks tradition, he was wise enough to give future Americans an even better idea one that could be emulated today, substituting, of course, electric lights.
“The whole city lighting up their candles at the windows,” he observed while walking through Philadelphia on the first anniversary of American independence .”I think it was the most splendid illumination I ever saw.”