Gawking at dozens of colorful explosions might not be the first way you think of celebrating a birthday or an anniversary.
Of course, it’s almost certainly the first thing that springs to mind when you think of celebrating the anniversary of our nation’s birth.
In fact, it turns out that setting off fireworks is a tradition even more time-honored than the Fourth of July itself. Some speculate that Europeans brought fireworks to America’s skies as early as 1608 (and that’s not to mention the thousand-plus years that fireworks have been used in China). English colonists even celebrated their first Independence Day with a bang – this in 1777, a full six years before the Revolutionary War ended.
Not surprisingly, the fireworks of yore were a far cry from today’s elaborate displays. Early Americans delighted in raised platforms on which fireworks were arranged to create patriotic images. Gravity-defying rockets and vivid colors alike were few and far between.
Now, displays seem to grow more innovative each year. Increasingly pure metals create ever more colorful displays. Lime green, violet, and hot pink fireworks might be next. As if that weren’t enough, electronic timers and synchronization with music take pyrotechnic artistry to new heights.
Aptly enough, much of this innovation centers on the official Fireworks Capital of America. That capital? New Castle, PA, located just under 60 miles north of Pittsburgh. The town is home to two premiere pyrotechnics firms, both of which started out as humble family businesses owned by Italian immigrants. At first, they stuck to illuminating religious celebrations and traditional festivals. But both companies soon saw business grow. Today, their rosters include the Kentucky Derby, New Year’s Eve in Times Square, and countless local weddings, fairs, and even backyard gatherings.
Not that fireworks have always garnered universal adoration. Take the oh-so-cheerily named Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, which in the early twentieth century lobbied to restrict the use of fireworks. Or take a recent op-ed bemoaning our collective fascination with pyrotechnic excesses.
In all seriousness, fireworks undoubtedly have a dark side. Post-Gazette stories from early as 1959 document the illegal sale of fireworks. In some photos, stony-faced vendors of explosive contraband are marched to jail. In others, police chiefs pose alongside thousands of dollars’ worth of impounded fireworks (including, in one astounding example, a Minnesota cache valued at $60,000).
More serious still were the injuries resulting from celebrations gone wrong. Stories from throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s document burns, explosions, and even deaths. Many of the accompanying photos feature children with casts and eyepatches. To this day, such injuries continue to pose a significant risk.
Yet used responsibly, fireworks offer considerable rewards. This Saturday, more than 14,000 displays will light up skies across the country.
Fireworks also remain a part of our national heritage. Americans have staged pyrotechnic celebrations of independence as far afield as Antarctica. And even when the outcome of the Revolution was far from certain, none other than John Adams anticipated that Americans would “forever more” celebrate Independence Day with “Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”
Granted, Adams thought they’d choose to commemorate independence on July 2. Still, the sentiment – and the celebration – endure all 239 years later.