Fireworks are fun. They have always been popular in America, just as they were for centuries in Europe, but the US, with its mention of rockets and flares in its national anthem, has a special affection for them.
(Those are highlights of the 2008 Fourth of July fireworks in New York City. The singers,Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, go back to the mid-20th century.)
Fireworks for the Fourth of July
They were called “illuminations” back in the day when King George III regularly celebrated his birthday with fireworks. John Adams called for a similar celebration on America’s birthday (which he thought would be on July 2). Adams told his wife Abigail that the rejection of the British monarchy by Congress
…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.
It was a nice thought, but illuminations were not readily available in early America. According to Albert Sidney Bolles in his 1881 review of American industrial history, they were too expensive to make locally and ship captains didn’t want to take the risk of sailing with a cargo of fireworks from Europe, where they were very popular.
Colors of fire for 19th century America
Somebody must have been using illuminations, though, because in 1816, Bolles says, manufacturing began “on a small scale,” and by the 1830s, fireworks were coming into general popular use throughout America.
Perhaps this was because reliable and beautiful pyrotechnics could be bought at the new local drug stores that were now appearing on the East Coast and elsewhere as a result of many developments in the field of medicine and pharmaceutical manufacturing.
According to Higby and Stroud in their 2005 introduction to American Pharmacy (1852-2002): A Collection of Historical Essays, “Between 1820 and 1860…East Coast apothecary shops became more standardized in their appearance and in the stock they carried. Pharmacy followed the trend of specialty retailing and concentrated on drugs, medicines, surgical supplies, artificial teeth and limbs, dyestuffs, essences, and chemicals.”
Remember the amazement you felt as a kid when they took you to the pharmacy for the very first time and you saw all that stuff? Imagine if you could buy fireworks there, too!
There were no national chains back in 1820, of course, but except for the chemicals, prostheses and surgical tools, the description is recognizable today as a local drugstore. Americans were stepping into that wonderful and varied market for the first time ever, and they loved it!
Ready-made illuminations were sold there, the pharmacist having taken the risk of building the little explosives in the shop out back using his stock of chemicals.
Chemists have a lot of fun!
Fireworks must have been quite a profitable little sideline for pharmacists.They would have advertised them in every way possible, and of course the cost of the illuminations would drop as more and more were sold.
Who was buying them? According to Bolles, patriotic private citizens, but also bar owners who erected a fence near their public-house and charged admission to see “wheels and snakes and Roman candles and rockets.”
Fireworks were usually displayed on the night before the Fourth of July, but there are many references in the old books to their use during street processions and at other times of the year in some regions, for example, at Christmas in the South.
By the late 1800s, the term “illuminations” came to mean the electric street lighting installed in some cities and used in exposition exhibits. It was now “colored fires” that local communities, resorts for the rich, electioneering political candidates, and others displayed whenever the occasion arose.
Ordinary people were still scooping them up at the pharmacy, too. Six months before the prime Fourth of July season, “American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record” was giving its readers hints on how to make and sell popular fireworks, including Bengal Fire (sparkling and steady white light), Lightning Paper that you lit and tossed in the air for a sudden bright flame, Brilliant Stars, Golden Rain, and either powdered or liquid fireworks, as you wished, in any of three shades of red, four shades of green, lilac, violet, yellow, or blue.
Everybody in America was crazy over fireworks by now. The closing years of the 19th century saw them used what the American Pyrotechnics Association calls “the greatest show ever seen in the Western Hemisphere”: a quadricentennial celebration of Columbus’s landing in the New World. It happened at the Brooklyn Bridge and more than a million people watched.
Fireworks have been popular all over the world for centuries. After the revolution, our Founding Fathers imagined they would used to celebrate the birth of America just as subjects celebrated their monarch’s birthday in Europe. It didn’t exactly start out with a bang here, but once all the factors fell into place during the opening decades of the 19th century, the popularity of fireworks really took off in America.
Today, each year we celebrate our nation’s birthday and many other events with them, more brightly, loudly and inventively than John Adams could ever have imagined. Of course, we do it on the wrong day and usually use music that was written for another occasion (a Russian wrote it to celebrate his country’s success against Napoleon’s invasion in 1812), but the Fourth of July sure is fun!
A version of this article appeared online at Helium on June 26, 2011.