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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4th of July Holiday: A Time for Family Reunions & Genealogy Fun

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott celebrates the Fourth of July holiday by researching old newspaper articles to discover some July 4th reunions celebrated in times past.

I love holidays and I especially love the 4th of July! Fireworks, picnics, and family reunions! What a great combination for all of us, and especially those of us who are genealogy “infected”! All my life July 4th was a time to gather family around and have a wonderful long weekend while celebrating the birth of the United States!

I hope you and your family had fun this past holiday weekend celebrating our great nation and enjoying quality time together.

When I began planning my picnic menu for this year’s 4th of July party (should I go with hamburgers, hot dogs, or brats?) I decided to spend a few moments searching GenealogyBank.com’s historical newspaper archives to see what some of the past July Fourth celebrations were like that “made the papers.”

The first article I found in my search, published in the “Society” column of a 1912 Pennsylvania newspaper, really perked up my interest as a genealogist. The historical news article listed the names of dozens of the reportedly more than 100 family members of three of the oldest families of the county who gathered for their annual 4th of July reunion. Seeing all those persons’ names and hometowns made me wish I were related!

Three Families in July Fourth Reunion, Patriot newspaper article 6 July 1912

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 6 July 1912, page 3

Next, I enjoyed another family reunion article and wished I had ancestors who lived in Mason, Fleming, and/or Lewis counties in Kentucky. This 1912 Kentucky newspaper reported on a nice assortment of many of the “Old Settlers” of the area.

Old Settlers Will Meet July Fourth, Lexington Herald newspaper article 22 May 1912

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 22 May 1912, page 2

I became a bit envious when I read an article from a 1913 Oklahoma newspaper. This piece explained that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had changed his mind and agreed to go to the Gettysburg battlefield and address the Veterans Encampment there. Can you imagine being at Gettysburg and walking amongst Civil War veterans, hearing their first-hand stories? Wow, what a 4th of July that would make for anyone who loves genealogy and history!

Wilson to Visit Gettsyburg Vetson July Fourth, Daily Oklahoman newspaper article 29 June 1913

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), 29 June 1913, page 1

Then I got a good chuckle from an article in an 1875 Ohio newspaper. This enjoyable item recounted the 4th of July festivities surrounding the annual gathering of telegraphers. I enjoyed reading that this group knew “how to have a frolic in a sensible and respectable manner” and sported badges with coded messages. Despite their apparent good manners and fun times, I’d be willing to bet that this is a group that doesn’t meet anymore.

Reunion of the Cleveland, Buffalo, Toledo and Erie Telegraphers, Plain Dealer newspaper article 6 July 1875

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 6 July 1875, page 4

Of course reading all these wonderful old newspaper articles about 4th of July family reunions and gatherings only made me pine a bit for some of my family reunions in times gone by. The last several decades or so have found us in a cabin in the north woods of Minnesota where we enjoy the holiday, often in its weather extremes. I have great memories ranging from the incredibly HOT 4th of July when the beach sand was so burning we couldn’t walk on it barefoot to get to our clambake fire—all the way to the other extreme of the 4th of July in 1996, when we all watched the fireworks in winter jackets, hats, and mittens after trimming a small, nearby pine tree with Christmas lights to celebrate the cold!

Before wrapping up my Fourth of July reunion research, I took a few more minutes to look in our old family photo albums for some more memories of the holiday. Aside from a whole lot of my really bad photos of fireworks that didn’t quite work out (thank goodness for digital photography now), I did find two photos that really took me back. One is of my dad and mom enjoying the 4th in their favorite place—a swimming pool.

photo of Scott Phillips' parents celebrating July Fourth by a swimming pool

The second photo was from a 1986 4th of July reunion with my in-laws in northern Minnesota.

photo of Scott Phillips celebrating July Fourth with his in-laws in northern Minnesota

Both these family photos bring memories of happy, happy times gone by. I hope you enjoy them; I have included them here as my way of saying: I hope you had a wonderful 4th of July holiday—and Happy Birthday to the United States of America!

By the way—what did you grill this 4th of July? Tell us in the comments.

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.

When I print the article – it is too small. I can’t read it. What do I do now?

A: Great question. GenealogyBank makes it easy to enlarge any page or article.

Newspapers over the past 4 centuries have been printed in all shapes and sizes. That is particularly true of Colonial American newspapers.

GenealogyBank captures each article and page and displays them for you online – making it easy for you to save them as an Adobe PDF document.

When you want print or save an article and you see that it is too small to be easily read – simply enlarge it using Adobe Acrobat.

Step One: Click on the PDF icon to open up the article as a PDF document.

Step Two: Use the zoom button to enlarge the article to the desired size.

Now you can easily read the article, copy, save or print it.

Look closely at this example – an account of the statue of King George III being torn down and made into bullets – Connecticut Journal 17 July 1776 page 1.
On July 9, 1776, after the Declaration of Independence was read to the American army in New York City, the soldiers rushed to the foot of Broadway at the Bowling Green. As depicted in this engraving, they had the assistance of free Blacks or slaves in pulling down the statue of King George III. The lead statue was later brought to Connecticut, where it was made into bullets.”

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It’s a great day for genealogy.


Happy Independence Day!

Read about it – as it happened in GenealogyBank.
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Alex Haley’s family tree grows via DNA study

USA Today (7 April 2009) is reporting that a DNA study has extended the branches of Alex Haley’s family tree.

The clue came when a “78-year-old man in Scotland named Thomas Baff, … took the DNA test to help his daughter” who was working on the family history.

You may read the story here.