The Fourth of July is Americana at its core: parades and cookouts, cold beers, and of course, fireworks.
Those pyrotechnics also make it a particularly dangerous vacation, typically resulting in more than 10,000 trips to the emergency room. Nonetheless, fireworks remain the focus of Independence Day, a holiday that has been invoked for 247 years.
Here are five things you should know about the Fourth of July, including the origin of the holiday and how fireworks became a part of the tradition.
WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF INDEPENDENCE DAY?
The holiday celebrates the unanimous acceptance by the Second Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, a document heralding the separation of the colonies from Britain.
A year later, according to the Library of Congress, an impromptu celebration of the anniversary of American independence was held in Philadelphia.
But across the emerging country, observations only became commonplace after the War of 1812. They picked up speed quickly: The Library of Congress notes that important historical events took place in the 19th century, such as the ground-breaking ceremonies for the Erie Canal and the Baltimore Canal, while the Ohio Railroad was supposed to coincide with the Fourth of July celebrations.
How did fireworks become a 4th of July tradition?
Pyrotechnic displays have been an important part of Independence Day since the beginning. Founding Father John Adams saw it coming.
The commemoration of America’s independence “should be celebrated with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and lights from one end of this continent to the other forever henceforth,” Adams wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail dated July 3, 1776.
Firecrackers were around centuries before America became a nation. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, many historians believe that fireworks first appeared in the second century B.C. in ancient China by throwing bamboo stalks into fire, causing explosions as the hollow air pockets overheated.
In 15th-century Europe, firecrackers were widely used at religious festivals and for public entertainment, and early US settlers carried on these traditions, the association says.
Has a president ever refused to celebrate?
Presidents from George Washington to Joe Biden have celebrated the nation’s birth on July 4th, with one exception: Adams.
Aside from his letter to his wife, Adams refused to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday because he believed that July 2nd was actually Independence Day. Why? On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted in favor of the Act of Independence, although the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted two days later.
Adams was so adamant that he turned down invitations to festivals and other events, even as the country’s second president. Ironically, Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the document’s official adoption.
How popular are fireworks?
Consumer sales of fireworks have grown rapidly over the past two decades.
Statistics from the American Pyrotechnics Association show that American consumers spent $407 million on fireworks in 2000. By 2022, that number rose to $2.3 billion. The biggest surge came during the COVID-19 pandemic, when public fireworks displays were suspended. Consumer sales grew from $1 billion in 2019 to $1.9 billion in 2020.
“On Memorial Day weekend, people would go to the fireworks store and just wouldn’t stop,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. “They have been setting off firecrackers throughout 2020. That shocked the industry, to be perfectly honest.”
Sales are expected to increase by another $100 million this year, the association said. It helps that July 4th falls on a Tuesday, making it essentially a four-day weekend.
ARE FIREWORKS DANGEROUS?
Despite extensive awareness-raising efforts, thousands of Americans are seriously injured by fireworks every year. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that in 2022, 10,200 people were treated in emergency rooms and 11 deaths were attributed to fireworks. About three quarters of the injuries occurred around July 4th.
About a third of the injuries involved the head, face, ears or eyes. Finger, hand and leg injuries are also common.
“I’ve seen people get their fingers blown off,” said Dr. Tiffany Osborn, emergency room physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. “I’ve seen people lose their eyes. I’ve seen people with serious facial injuries.”
Almost a third of those injured by fireworks are children under the age of 15. Sparklers are often blamed for burns in children under the age of 5. Osborn suggested giving young children glow sticks or brightly colored streamers instead.
For those planning to launch fireworks, Heckman recommends finding a flat, hard, and level surface away from buildings and other things that could catch fire. The person in charge of the fireworks should avoid alcohol. Children should never light them.
Osborn recommended keeping a bucket or hose nearby in case of a fire or explosion. Shoot one at a time and walk away quickly after lighting, she said, and never relight or handle defective fireworks. When you’re done, scoop up the leftovers and soak before discarding.