For as long as Americans can remember, the nation has celebrated the Fourth of July by staging grand fireworks shows in public squares and lighting smaller displays at home. Why do we commemorate Independence Day by setting off thousands of small explosions?
Because John Adams wanted us to. (no, not that John Adams) Before the Declaration of Independence was even signed, he envisioned fireworks as a part of the festivities. In a letter to Abigail Adams on July 3, 1776, he wrote that the occasion should be commemorated “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.” The first commemorative Independence Day fireworks were set off on July 4, 1777. The Pennsylvania Evening Post wrote that in Philadelphia, “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.” The paper noted that “Everything was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal.” That same year, fireworks also lit up the sky in Boston, where they were exhibited by Col. Thomas Crafts over the common. By 1783 a large variety of fireworks were available to the public. In 1784 one merchant offered a range of pyrotechnics that included “rockets, serpents, wheels, table rockets, cherry trees, fountains, and sun flowers.”