Happy Independence Day!! I hope you're able to celebrate today in some way or another. Good food, family, friends, maybe even some fireworks! Speaking of fireworks, have you ever wondered how long the Fourth of July and fireworks have gone together? Would you believe it's been since the beginning of Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations?!
The earliest forms of such pyrotechnics can be traced to around 2,000 years ago or so in China. During the Han Dynasty in 200 B.C., people are said to have roasted bamboo stalks until they would turn black and sizzle, and the air inside the hollow stalks would explode. “Baozhu” is a Mandarin word for firecracker that translates directly to “exploding bamboo.”
Chinese history experts say somewhere between 600 A.D. and 900 A.D., Chinese alchemists took the idea to the next level by filling bamboo shoots with gunpowder made from saltpeter (potassium nitrate, sulfur, and carbon acquired from charcoal), and throwing them into a fire pit. Steel dust or cast-iron shavings were added to make them sparkle. Another recipe for Chinese fireworks, published by the Paris Academy of Sciences in the 18th century, reported that “Chinese fire was made by crushing old iron pots and scraps into sand and adding the sand to gunpowder.” These firecrackers were often used during New Year Festivals and weddings to scare off evil spirits.
As the ingredients for gunpowder spread West with the Silk Road opening trade and the Mongols making their way to Europe in the 13th century, so too did fireworks (according to Simon Werritt, a science historian and author of Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History). Fireworks became a part of official celebrations, from the annual “Girandola” fireworks display at the Castello Sant’Angelo in Rome to the 1533 coronation of Anne Boleyn as Queen of England.
It is no surprise that as soon as July Fourth began to be celebrated as America’s Independence Day, fireworks were part of the plan. John Adams wrote a letter to his wife saying he hoped the anniversary of independence would be marked for years to come by “guns” and “bonfires” and “illuminations.”
The first Fourth of July fireworks display happened in the middle of the Revolutionary War and some historians believe the display was supposed to be a morale booster. The celebrations at the time would have also included the firing of cannons and guns, adding to the explosive nature of the festivities.
With the war’s end and increasing concern for public safety, the firearms were eventually phased out of the celebrations and replaced almost entirely by the fireworks, which were often given the official stamp of approval in the hope of drawing citizens to public celebrations instead of more dangerous private firework shows.
Today, though fireworks are now a well-established Fourth of July tradition, they’ve still retained some link to their origins. In 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, $296.2 million worth of fireworks were imported to the U.S. from China.