The first time fireworks were used to celebrate July 4th was on July 8th, 1776. According to History.com, some of the fireworks used may have been used mockingly, because in England fireworks were used as a birthday celebration for the kings and queens. Firing the fireworks to celebrate the separation of the colonies from England was to some the celebration of the “death” of the king’s power over them.
The next year, on July 4th, 1777, the first official July 4th celebration was held. This day was celebrated with the firing of guns, cannons, bonfires and fireworks. Philadelphia was the first city to celebrate July 4th in this manner (which was the capitol of the United States at the time). Other cities soon took up the practice of firing guns and fireworks on July 4th as well.
Ship’s cannons fired a 13-gun salute in honor of the 13 colonies. The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported: “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.” That same night, the Sons of Liberty set off fireworks over Boston Common.
On America’s first Fourth of July celebration in 1777, fireworks were one color: orange. There were no elaborate sparkles, no red, white, and blue stars — nothing more than a few glorified (although uplifting) explosions in the sky.
If you’ve ever wondered why we celebrate Independence Day with these colorful explosions, you can thank the British — and John Adams. On July 2nd, 1776, two days before the Declaration of Independence was signed, he wrote this letter to his wife:
“This day will be most memorable in the history of America,” he predicted. “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 content to the other, from this time forward forevermore.” …and so it was. On July 4, 1777, the first anniversary of America’s country-hood, there were indeed fireworks, and there would be for more than 200 years to follow.
Official Holiday Declaration
July 4th was not declared an official federal holiday until 1941. Before then the 4th of July was still celebrated around the country but in a less official capacity. Once July 4th was named a federal holiday, more people than ever started using fireworks as a part of their Independence Day celebrations.
Today, nearly everyone celebrates July 4th with fireworks of some kind. Almost every city in the country has its own special July 4th fireworks displays. Families use sparkers and firecrackers at their own homes to celebrate our nation’s independence.
Since 1988, Stratford performs an annual fireworks display at Short Beach. (The rain date is July 5th). The fireworks display begins right after sunset at, approximately, 9:00 p.m. and over 5,000 people have attended this town wide event.
As it turns out, although we’ve been lighting fireworks for the last 2000 years or so, modern fireworks were only invented in the 1830s — so, what were they like before then?
Like many inventions, firecrackers fireworks were created by accident… and by the search for immortality. Around 200 BC, the Chinese unintentionally invented firecrackers by tossing bamboo into fire, but it took another thousand years before true fireworks came alive. As the story goes, around 800 AD, an alchemist mixed sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (a food preservative) hoping to find the secret to eternal life. Instead, the mixture caught on fire, and gunpowder was born! When the powder was packed into bamboo or paper tubes and lit on fire, history had its first fireworks!
If you attended a fireworks show in 1600, the science would not have been much different from ancient China, but it was a lot more entertaining! Now used for military victories, religious events, or royal celebrations, aerial fireworks (still plain orange — no color yet!) were run by “firemasters” and their assistants, “green men”. Before the show, the green men, named for the leaves they wore to protect themselves from sparks, would tell jokes to the crowd while they prepared the celebration. Being a green man, however, was a highly dangerous position, and many were injured or killed when their fireworks malfunctioned.
The colorful explosions we see today would not be created for another sixty years when Italian inventors added in metals like strontium or barium. In the 1830s, our modern fireworks were born, and celebrations took on an entirely new light.
If you watch a fireworks show this Fourth of July, you will witness over 2000 years of danger, invention, and beauty wrapped into a simple package. From exploding bamboo to parcels of gunpowder and metals, our science — and our world — have come a long way in the past millennia! Even the most common science often has a wonderful and fascinating history. Who knows what the future will bring next?
Early U.S. settlers brought their love of fireworks with them to the New World and fireworks were part of the very first Independence Day – a tradition that continues every 4th of July when we celebrate as John Adams had hoped “with pomp, parade….bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” Americans’ spirit of celebration continued to grow and in the late 18th century, politicians used displays to attract crowds to their speeches.
While July 4th is still the “big day”, Americans continue to use fireworks year-round to celebrate at festivals, special events, and sporting traditions such as the Olympics and Super Bowl.
Fireworks entertainment generates dollars as well as smiles. Thunder Over Louisville is one of the country’s largest fireworks displays and an economic study conducted by the Derby Festival determined that Thunder generates more than $56 million for the local economy.
But more than anything else, when you think of the fireworks, you think of the Fourth of July and the celebration of our country’s Independence. Fireworks have been with Americans since our nation’s beginning and that is why the American Pyrotechnics Association continues its work to Preserve and Promote an American Tradition!
Connecticut Connection to Fireworks (Grucci Family Upstarts!)
M. Backes and Sons of Wallingford, started as a company in 1876 manufacturing caps for cap guns. It began to make fireworks like fountains and spinners for “backyard use” and flares and signals during World War II.
The company closed in 1962 after rebuilding several times as explosions destroyed several factories, breaking windows and damaging homes for miles around.
At the trailhead of the Quinnipiac River Linear Trail, you can connect to a place called Fireworks Island, in the Yalesville section of town. The trail offers some stellar views of the Quinnipiac and a history lesson of a place that was once home to the “Fireworks Capital of Connecticut.”
The new northern segment begins on Fireworks Island, created when a manmade channel — known as the “Yalesville Raceway” — was dug in the 1850s to harness the water power of the Quinnipiac. The raceway was dug by hand and was 30 feet wide and 8 feet deep. The stonewalls and locks of the raceway can still be seen from a bridge accessing the trail’s parking lot. The island which was formed is known as ‘Fireworks Island,’ named for the M. Backes and Sons fireworks company which maintained a storage facility on the island.
Today’s Firepower Families
Lighting up the skies is a family business. Passed down from generation to generation, and not without dangers, fireworks are still practiced as a trade brought over from Italy and Portugal by their great great great grandfathers. The genealogy of these families lights up many a branch of their family trees.
This genealogy of firework families is a blast. And an international one, too. It blazes from early China and those royal family trees with spectacular genealogical lines to Florence, Italy in the 1400s where the fireworks manufacturing biz was booming.
Now, the genealogy of fireworks in America is into a new generation. These fireworks businesses are booming with the genealogy of a forth, fifth, sixth and seventh generation now in their family business.
A brief list of Italian or Portuguese fireworks families who have brought excitement to New Year’s eve, Fourth of July and special event excitement in today’s USA includes:
• Bartolotta: Family of Sam Bartolotta who turned a hobby he began in 1930 into a company Bartolotta Fireworks Inc. of Genesee Depot, Wisconsin in 1977, now on its third generation.
• Cartolano: Ancestors of Mike Cartolano current head of Melrose Fireworks, Melrose Park/Kingsbury, Illinois.
• Grucci: The Grucci Family owners of Fireworks By Grucci, Long Island, NY.
• Rozzi: The descendants of Paul Rozzi of Rozzi Fireworks in Cincinatti/Loveland, Ohio.
• Serpico: The family of John Serpico did run the business. Gerry Serpico, who worked with one of the Serpico sons, and her son Randy now run International Fireworks, Douglassville, PA originally from North Bergen, NJ.
• Sorgi: The Sorgi Family owners of American Fireworks, Hudson, Ohio.
• Souza: The Souza Family owners of Pyro Spectaculars, Inc., Rialto, CA.
• Vitale: The Vitale Family owner of Constantino Vitale’s Pyrotecnico begun in Pietramelara, Italy in 1889 and relocated in 1920 in New Castle, PA.
• Zambelli: The Zambelli Family owners of Zambelli Internationale, Inc., New Castle, PA and Florida.