Red, White And Boom


By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.

Fireworks are as American as apple pie — but America’s fascination with pyrotechnics predates our young country by nearly 2,000 years. While fireworks may seem like a very American tradition, especially on the Fourth of July, their origins go back centuries before the first Independence Day fireworks display in Philadelphia in 1777.

Most historians believe that fireworks originated in China. Between 600 and 900 A.D., Chinese alchemists mixed together a combination of saltpeter, charcoal, sulfur and other ingredients, stuffing the volatile substance into bamboo shoots that were then thrown into the fire to produce a loud blast. Eventually, paper tubes replaced bamboo stalks and by the 10th century, the Chinese began attaching these crude bombs to arrows, using them to shoot at adversaries during military engagements. The Chinese also used these explosives to put on aerial displays for special occasions. 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.

In medieval England, fireworks experts were known as “firemasters.” Their assistants were called “green men” because they wore caps of leaves to protect their heads from sparks. These men also doubled as jesters and entertained the crowd with jokes as they prepared the fireworks displays.

By the time of the Renaissance, pyrotechnic schools were cropping up across Europe.  Fireworks became popular among European rulers who used them to illuminate their castles on important occasions. In England, the earliest recorded fireworks display occurred on King Henry VII’s wedding day in 1486.  In 1685, King James II’s royal firemaster achieved such a dazzling presentation for the king’s coronation that he received a knighthood. In France, kings regularly put on spectacular displays at Versailles and other palaces, while in Russia, Czar Peter the Great arranged a five-hour fireworks display to mark the birth of his son.

In 1608, Captain John Smith set off the first fireworks display in the new world in Jamestown. However, history shows that as America became enamored with fireworks many colonists used them in pranks. Officials declared fireworks a public nuisance, and in 1731, Rhode Island became the first state to ban the “mischievous use of pyrotechnics.”

On July 3, 1776, the day before the Continental Congress adopted its final version of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife in which he described the role of fireworks in Fourth of July celebrations, calling them “illuminations.” Adams wrote:

“The day will be most memorable 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 solemnized with pomp and parade…bonfires, and illuminations…from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”

The following year, fireworks displays commemorated America’s first birthday.  On July 4, 1777, Philadelphia put together an elaborate day of festivities, notes American University historian James R. Heintze. The celebration included a 13 cannon display, a parade, a fancy dinner, toasts, music, musket salutes, “loud huzzas,” and of course fireworks. Heintze cites this description from the Virginia Gazette on July 18, 1777:

“The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Everything was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal. Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more.”

According to Heintze, the centerpieces were raised platforms covered with fireworks arranged to evoke patriotic images — George Washington’s profile, for example. Thus, the fireworks display in 1777 was a far cry from today’s elaborate, choreographed pyrotechnic shows.

Fireworks certainly have grown and not only in complexity. The American Pyrotechnics Association (APA) estimates that more than 15,000 fireworks displays light up the nation’s sky each Fourth of July.




JULY 2 — following Harrisburg Senators game, 6:30 p.m. at FNB Field.

JULY 3 — following Harrisburg Senators game, 6:30 p.m. at FNB Field.

JULY 4 — at 9:15 p.m., following Taste of Independence Food Truck Festival from 3 p.m.-
9 p.m. at Riverfront Park.

JULY 12 — following Harrisburg Senators game, 7 p.m. at FNB Field.

JULY 19 — following Harrisburg Senators game, 7 p.m. at FNB Field.

AUGUST 2 — following Harrisburg Senators game,
7 p.m. at FNB Field.

AUGUST 3 — following Harrisburg Senators game,
7 p.m. at FNB Field.

AUGUST 23 — following Harrisburg Senators game,
7 p.m. at FNB Field.

AUGUST 30 — following Harrisburg Senators game,
7 p.m. at FNB Field.



July 4 — at 10 p.m. at
Hershey Park.



July 5 – at dusk,
Williams Grove Speedway.

July 26 – at dusk,
Williams Grove Speedway.

July 27 – at dusk,
Williams Grove Speedway.

August 30 – at dusk,
Williams Grove Speedway.