History of Fireworks in America: News from 1700s Forward

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to find stories about the history of fireworks and their use for celebrations in America.

With the recent Fourth of July celebrations for Independence Day in America, we all have been seeing and hearing a lot of fireworks lately.

photo of Fourth of July fireworks over the nation’s Capitol

Photo: Fourth of July fireworks over the nation’s Capitol. Source: Library of Congress.

Letter from John Adams

It seems that the idea to celebrate our nation’s independence has always included fireworks. In a 3 July 1776 letter to his wife Abigail, future President John Adams declared:

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be 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.*

(Note: Adams was referring to the unanimous vote by the Continental Congress on 2 July 1776 in support of a resolution of independence from Great Britain. The formal Declaration of Independence was ratified 4 July 1776, which is why we celebrate Independence Day on the Fourth of July.)

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Adams’ letter was reprinted in various newspapers well into the 19th century. It was even recalled in this 1893 California advertisement which proclaims: “Boys, how are you going to celebrate the glorious Fourth? With Fireworks of course, like true and patriotic little Americans.” Adams’ letter ran across the top of the ad, above a cartoon of Uncle Sam handing fireworks to little boys, promising them a supply of fireworks “with every Boy’s Suit sold in the Juvenile Department, no matter what price suit it may be.” More than one company used the award of fireworks as a motivator to get kids to sell or buy their product.

ad for fireworks, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper advertisement, 25 June 1893

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 25 June 1893, page 14

While we celebrate the 4th of July and not the 2nd as stated in Adams’ letter, the spirit is still the same: revelries including fireworks are all part of the holiday festivities.

The History of Fireworks

The history of fireworks predates those first July celebrations here in the United States of America. Most historians believe that fireworks originated in China prior to 1000 A.D., when bamboo would be heated until it exploded. Fireworks evolved to include ingredients used for gunpowder.**  No matter when they were actually discovered, fireworks have long been a part of various celebrations in the United States.

Do you think that our ancestors had plain, not-so-exciting fireworks? Well you would be wrong. Fireworks makers have always been creative. Consider this 1901 newspaper article’s description of fireworks: balloon fireworks that, when released into the air, pop and leave behind

elephants and fish and as many animals as Noah had in the ark to float around, with rockets and roman candles shooting out of them. They can be bought with attachments which will make music too.

This old newspaper article further describes fireworks

rising like the Eiffel tower of fire to an immense height, with a grand explosion, from a gorgeous veil of feathery plumes reaching nearly to the ground, embellished with topaz and emerald comets intertwining in their flight. Amid the clouds they display a broad, swelling spread of liquid gold in streamers of glittering radiance, with feathery edges gradually spreading and dissolving into a cloud of sparkling mist. Bursting in midheaven, they form an aurora…shower of electric jewels of emeralds and sapphire tints falling slowly to the earth.

What a great fireworks show!

Fireworks for 1901, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 3 July 1901

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 3 July 1901, page 3

Explosive Danger

There’s no doubt fireworks are dangerous. Reading late 19th and early 20th century newspapers, it becomes clear that some of the concerns still held today by city officials and firefighters existed during our ancestors’ time. While the dangers of fireworks are many—everything from the manufacture to the handling, storage and subsequent igniting of the device—fireworks have been known to result in fires, injuries, and even death.

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Because of this associated danger, various laws including the banning of displays have been a part of fireworks history in the United States. Even in my lifetime, here in California we have gone from setting off fireworks in our driveways, to fireworks being banned for individual sale, to municipalities cancelling fireworks displays because of budget shortfalls and drought conditions. Reading through historical newspapers, it seems that life hasn’t changed too much.

Consider this newspaper article about an explosion at a fireworks factory in 1904. The explosion killed three people and injured six.

Three Lives Lost in a Fire Following Explosion of Fireworks, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 28 June 1904

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 28 June 1904, page 1

While the explosion occurred on the building’s first floor where the fireworks factory was located, two of the victims killed were actually working on the third floor for a hat company. A newspaper article appearing a few days later provided information from the coroner’s inquest including drawings of some of the witnesses.

Inquest Fails to Determine Cause of Fireworks Horror, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 3 July 1904

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 3 July 1904, page 5

Fireworks Aren’t Just for the 4th of July

While fireworks are probably most associated with the Fourth of July, then as now they are set off for other celebratory occasions or events. State fairs, amusements parks and baseball stadiums all use fireworks as a way to make a day out more memorable.

fireworks ad for the Utah State Fair, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper advertisement 27 September 1917

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 27 September 1917, page 13

Our ancestors even used fireworks to commemorate Christmas. In this advertisement for Christmas trees, fireworks feature prominently—a combination many of us would find odd today.

ad for Christmas trees and fireworks, Charleston News and Courier newspaper advertisement 3 January 1895

Charleston News and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 3 January 1895, page 4

Fireworks have helped us celebrate occasions throughout our country’s history. Read more about how your ancestor’s hometown celebrations played out by searching in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

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*From the National Park Service webpage “National Mall Independence Day Celebration” at http://www.nps.gov/foju/historyandculture.htm. Accessed 2 July 2014.
**From the A&E History webpage “Fireworks’ Vibrant History” by Jennie Cohen at http://www.history.com/news/fireworks-vibrant-history. Accessed 2 July 2014.

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Fourth of July Trivia: Quiz Your History IQ

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to add to your Fourth of July celebrations, Mary presents a fun quiz of Independence Day and Founding Fathers trivia.

As 4th of July celebrations are more American than apple pie, I thought our GenealogyBank Blog readers might enjoy an Independence Day trivia quiz.

photo of fireworks behind the Washington Monument, 4 July 1986

Photo: fireworks behind the Washington Monument, 4 July 1986. Credit: Lono Kollars; Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the more historical-minded genealogists already know the answers, but if not, try figuring out these questions about July 4th on your own. Some answers may surprise you. (The answers are shown below.)

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1) What year were fireworks first used to celebrate the 4th of July?

A) 1776
B) 1777
C) 1826
D) 1876

2) Why were captured enemy Hessians allowed to participate in the celebrations at Philadelphia on the 4th of July in 1777?

A) The American troops wished to raise morale by humiliating them.
B) They were waiters who served food to the American officers.
C) They were talented musicians.
D) Their capture and subsequent parading through Philadelphia was reenacted.

3) How many rockets were shot in celebration on that glorious day in 1777?

A) 10
B) 13
C) 16
D) 20

4) What saying was reiterated three times on 4 July 1777?

A) Hip, Hip, Hurray!
B) Long live America!
C) Long live Congress!
D) The Glorious Fourth of July!

5) Which of these presidents died on the 4th of July (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and/or James Monroe)?

A) Adams & Jefferson
B) Adams & Monroe
C) Jefferson & Monroe
D) Adams, Jefferson & Monroe

6) Who died first, Adams, Jefferson or Monroe?

A) Adams
B) Jefferson
C) Monroe

7) What were Jefferson’s last words?

A) “God bless America.”
B) “No, doctor, nothing more.”
C) “May God have mercy on America.”

8) Another Founding Father died on the 4th of July. He was known as the penman of our Bill of Rights. Who was he?

A) Fisher Ames
B) William Blount
C) Thomas Fitzsimmons
D) Robert Morris

9) Which of these persons was not born on the 4th of July?

A) Tom Cruise
B) Malia Obama
C) Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips (Abigail Van Buren, aka “Dear Abby”)
D) Neil Simon (playwright)

10) Why do some people insist that the 2nd of July is our true Independence Day?

A) It was the day the resolution was passed in Congress to declare our independence.
B) It was the day we won a major victory against the British.
C) It was the day the peace treaty was signed ending the war.

Searching for the Answers

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Here are the answers to the Fourth of July trivia questions. I came up with many of these questions and answers based on research in old newspapers. An online collection, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is a great way to learn more about our Colonial and Revolutionary ancestors—and the times they lived in. For example, this 1777 newspaper article provides answers to the first four trivia questions.

article about Fourth of July celebrations in Philadelphia in 1777, Virginia Gazette newspaper article 20 July 1777

Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Virginia), 20 July 1777, page 2

The answer to the fifth trivia question can be found in this 1907 newspaper article.

Three Presidents Died on the Fourth of July, Grand Rapid Press newspaper article 4 July 1907

Grand Rapid Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 4 July 1907, page 3

The Answers

  • Question 1: B. 1777 was the first year that America celebrated its Declaration of Independence with fireworks.
  • Question 2: C. The Hessian band was used to entertain the troops.
  • Question 3: B. Thirteen rockets were shot in honor of the thirteen Colonies.
  • Question 4: D. “The Glorious Fourth of July” was repeated three times.
  • Question 5: D. Presidents Adams and Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of 4 July 1776 (1826) and President Monroe died on 4 July 1831.
  • Question 6: B. Jefferson. Shortly before he died, Adams reportedly said “Thomas Jefferson survives,” but he was mistaken—as Jefferson had passed away earlier that same day.
  • Question 7: B. These are Jefferson’s recorded last words, refusing the laudanum being offered by his doctor.
  • Question 8: A. Fisher Ames (9 April 1758 – 4 July 1808) was a Representative to Congress from the 1st Congressional District of Massachusetts.
  • Question 9: A. Although he appeared in the movie Born on the 4th of July, Tom Cruise was actually born on July 3 in 1962.
  • Question 10: A. July 2 was the day that the Declaration of Independence resolution passed Congress. July 4 was the official date printed on the document.

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Search Revolutionary War Records Online & Share Your Finds

With Memorial Day, Flag Day and July 4th fresh in our memory, genealogists often think about their Revolutionary War ancestors.

American Revolutionary War Newspapers Collage

Revolutionary War Newspaper Articles from GenealogyBank.com

Remember that GenealogyBank has a strong collection of historical newspapers and records from the 1700s and 1800s. Discover your early American ancestry in millions of records from the Revolutionary period.

Let’s honor the lives of each one of our Revolutionary War ancestors.

Between now and the end of the year we will be posting articles and obituaries about Revolutionary War soldiers. The American Revolutionary War started 238 years ago.

Write in and tell us about your Revolutionary War ancestor. Let’s recognize and remember 238 Revolutionary War soldiers in the days ahead. Let’s all do our part in making sure the memories of these brave Revolutionary War heroes are not lost.

Please post your genealogy research finds here in the blog’s comments section.

Celebrate Independence Day by Honoring Our American Ancestors

Cheers to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—and to our brave American ancestors who fought for our freedom! Amidst the festivities and fireworks of this 4th of July holiday, take time to remember those heroic American revolutionaries that came before us, boldly paving the paths for our futures.

To The People of the United 13 Colonies - July 6, 1776

Freeman’s Journal (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 6 July 1776, page 2.

GenealogyBank is one of the best online resources available to trace your family history back to your American Colonial and Revolutionary roots. Our historical archives contain hundreds of thousands of articles from the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. Many of these records from the 1600s and 1700s are exclusive to our online collections, making GenealogyBank a prime location to explore your early American ancestry.

Happy 4th of July, 2013, to all our fellow Americans! Raise your head, your flag, your glass and salute each other and our ancestors. Dig into GenealogyBank’s genealogy records and discover the early American heroes in your family tree.

To read the above historical newspaper article about the Declaration of Independence in full, visit To The People of the Thirteen Colonies.