Why We Watch Fireworks on the Fourth of July

Fireworks are a tradition ordained by the founding fathers, but have a dangerous past.

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Thought to be invented by the Chinese 2,000 years ago, fireworks have been a tradition of America's Fourth of July celebrations since the country's inception, with the founding fathers themselves seeing fireworks fit to mark the birth of their nation.

In a July 3, 1776 letter to his wife, John Adams declared that the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be a "great anniversary Festival" and "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."

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A year later, Congress itself ordained the tradition, enjoying in Philadelphia "a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons," according to the Evening Post. The celebratory firing of muskets, artillery and other explosives was a carryover from colonial days. "What was different about it is they began to have the fireworks represent the 13 states," James Heintze, a retired librarian emeritus of American University and author of the "Fourth of July Encyclopedia," says. "The numerical symbolism became very important for the Fourth of July."

Boston also saw a fireworks display in 1777. In the following years, the tradition spread through the Boston area to New York and other cities, with various papers reporting colorful displays lighting the sky at the time.

Early Fourth of July celebrations through the 1876 centennial saw the popularization of set pieces, enormous platforms to which fireworks were attached, creating images of flags, bells and other Independence Day iconography that have lost favor since. Cities sought to outdo one another with their displays, with New York becoming the leader of fireworks celebrations, having 15 different displays throughout the city.

Pyrotechnicians – the best bringing the craft over from Italy – emerged as a profession in the early 1800s, as cities hired them to design and execute their exhibitions. This period also saw the rise of fireworks being sold to the public. By 1783, Philadelphia merchants were selling fireworks to its citizenry, including the very young, making the streets a dangerous place on the Fourth.

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"Children would walk down the street in Philadelphia and would throw a lit firecracker on a table of fireworks a merchant was trying to sell," Heintze says. In 1867, the Washington Evening Star reported one firm had received orders of orders 2,000 boxes of fireworks, 84,000 torpedoes and 190,000 roman candles. Terrible fires ravaged American cities and towns throughout the 19th century due to the excessive fireworks use. The pioneers also brought the practice out West, using dynamite instead of traditional fireworks to light up the sky.

Early attempts to regulate citizen fireworks focused more on the noise – celebrations would often start on July 3 and carry on for a day and a half – than the danger involved. It wasn't until the turn of the 20th century that momentum to crack down on street fireworks started to grow, with the American Medical Association beginning to track casualties in 1903.

The mayor of Colorado Springs issued a ban on dynamite use in city limits in 1901. In other cities, associations emerged to promote "safe and sane celebrations" – including sports, games, contests and musical performances – to replace unorganized firework activity. In 1909, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Cleveland were among the first cities to hold such "safe and sane celebrations." Cities continued to sponsor official displays in the hope that drawing crowds to sanctioned exhibitions could discourage amateur use.

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By the 1930s, stricter legislations began to curb fireworks sales on the state and local level, which is how pyrotechnic sales are regulated today. But economic downturns and budget constraints have led cities have to downsize or eliminate firework displays, often to the dismay of citizens.