“The day will be most memorable in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, bonfires and illuminations (fireworks) from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more”
John Adams wrote this to his wife on July 3, 1776, the day after Congress approved of independence, but before the day the Declaration in its final written form was adopted. So even when our independence was barely set down, Adams knew that us thrill-seeking Americans would from then on blow stuff up in honor of our nation’s birth.
By the time of America’s independence, fireworks had been long known to humanity. Gunpowder alone was nearly a thousand years old. They’d always been used for celebration. The first organized firework displays for Independence Day came on the first anniversary in 1777—a time in which we were feeling pretty good about ourselves, before we lost Philadelphia in the fall.
In that city on the 4th, it seems a serious celebration went down. At a time when we were at war, we pulled out all the stops. Every politician available—Congress, Speaker of the Assembly, local councilmen, town board members—came to town. Toasts were drunk, bonfires were ignited, the people paraded. In the Delaware River, 13 ships fired 13 cannon, one for each colony (as I’d hoped you guess).
Then at night, the “illuminations” were launched into the sky. It was a truly dazzling display of art across the night sky. Even British and Hessian prisoners took part in the fun. The show began with a salvo of 13 fireworks and then concluded with another round of 13.
So Philadelphia really set it off. Boston celebrated similarly—unleashing 13 rockets over the harbor—on the same day, but not with such extravagance. All over the festivities spread, some starting later than others.
In 1783, it seems the public got their hands on fireworks. A printed advertisement of “rockets, serpents, wheels, table rockets, cherry trees, fountains, and sunflowers” from Philadelphia shows this. Before long, governments got anxious. Already by 1786, New York City and Charleston banned fireworks—in the hands of the people. Despite this, kids ran out into the streets with their homemade fireworks and wreaked havoc.
Ever since the first anniversary, fireworks have been synonymous with Independence Day. But in 1837, another tradition was already becoming as notable as the pyrotechnics. A visiting British naval officer wrote: “But why do they get so confoundedly drunk? Why, on this day of independence, should they become so dependent_ upon posts and rails for support? The day is at last over: my head aches, but there will be many more aching heads tomorrow morning!”