Fireworks are synonymous with American patriotism. But the origins of fireworks are decidedly global. Historians believe that fireworks were first developed—or discovered—in China in the second century B.C. when bamboo stalks in campfires exploded from steam build-up in the hollow shoots, producing small explosions. The Chinese began using the natural “firecrackers” to scare off evil spirits.
Sometime during medieval times in China, between 600 and 900 AD, Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder by mixing potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal. When poured into hollow bamboo sticks, it produced fireworks.
In the 13th century, Marco Polo brought fireworks to Europe. The Roman Catholic church in Italy first started using fireworks for religious festivals. Soon Italian and other European royalty were using fireworks to entertain and illuminate their castles for special occasions. During the Renaissance, pyrotechnic schools sprouted up. In the early 1800s, the Italians, again, were the first Europeans to experiment with colored sparks and different patterns of explosions, incorporating trace amounts of metals and chemicals to produce different effects.
The English kings began using fireworks for their coronations. Consequently, English colonists brought fireworks with them to the New World. In fact, John Smith (of Pocahontas fame), reputedly set off the first fireworks in 1608 in Jamestown.
Fireworks would become a quintessential part of patriotic celebration in the young United States. The day before the Declaration of Independence was signed by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, John Adams (who would become President someday) wrote to his wife Abigail, envisioning the birthday holiday of the nation: “The day will be the most memorable in the history of America,” he predicted. “I 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 the continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
The War of 1812 would foster more fireworks traditions for Independence Day. IN 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem about a battle, “The Defense of Fort Henry,” that began: “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming....” That poem would become the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner,” set to the tune of a popular drinking song! Fireworks perfectly orchestrated its lyrics: “The rockets’ red glare, The bombs bursting in air.”
In the 1830s, Italian pyrotechnic artisans discovered ways to produce colored fireworks by adding metals and other chemicals. Strontium produced red; barium-green; copper-blue; sodium-red. Using potassium chlorate as an oxidizer brightened the hues.
During the Civil War, the cherry bomb was developed and used as a weapon. It was a small, round paper wrapped sphere, usually red, with a fuse and looked like a cherry. Its core contained either flash powder or black powder wrapped in compressed sawdust with an ignition fuse. Once the fuse was lit, it took 3-5 seconds to detonate.
America’s 100th anniversary celebration in Philadelphia corresponded with the first official World’s Fair, which was attended by about 10 million visitors, 20% of the nation’s population! The fireworks celebration featured a colossal, 15-minutes display of state-of-the art pyrotechnics accompanied with numerous brass bands. The centennial showcased two big ceremonies: the gifting of the spectacular Statue of Liberty to the 100-year-old nation by France; and the replacement of the cracked Liberty Bell with a new bell cast of four Civil War cannons for Independence Hall. Citizens celebrated with a cacophony of fireworks everywhere.
John Adams' prescient vision of how the new nation he had helped to create would celebrate their annual birthday had, indeed, come true.
PHOTOS: (1) Antique packaging of Chinese fireworks from the 1800s (dated unknown). Historians believe fireworks were first discovered in China thousands of years ago when bamboo shoots exploded in a campfire. The majority of fireworks are manufactured in China. IN the 1800s, fireworks use in the United States, you could say, “boomed!” (2) An 1883 antique catalogue from a Japanese company. Hirayama was the first Japanese fireworks company to get a license in the U.S. (3) A page from the catalog shows the different colors and formations of the fireworks Hirayama offered. Some of the most common were called Peony Chrysanthemum, Golden Willow, Crackling Horse Tail, Spider, and Palm. (4,5,6,7) The Chinese were ingenious at marketing to the exploding American market and incorporated popular motifs in their names and packages. These samples show CATS brand (kittens playing with firecrackers), a demure woman on the “Cock” brand, Atomic firecrackers, and Warpath with an Indian motif and the blurb, “Big Chop, More Pop!” Other packaging copied cigarettes (Lucky Strike and Camel), baseball, Uncle Sam, the military (i.e., The Marines), animals such as Mad Dog and Black Cat, Gorilla, and Lion’s Cub, cowboys, Red Devil, Sweet Revenge, and (my favorite) Beyond Reason. There were even specialty “Indoor Fireworks” and “Children’s Fireworks!” (8 & 9) Speaking of fireworks for children, fireworks promotional posters started marketing to potential customers at a young age, as shown in these two early 1900s posters. Why is it always the boys lighting the explosives? 😉 (10) A rare 1876 Centennial Celebration poster. (Notice that the Native American and African American are shown kneeling, endemic of the prejudice of the times.)
You may be interested in this related post:
-The History of Uncle Sam
"Fireworks, The Explosive Celebration of America's Birthday" was first posted on July 4, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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