From Firebrands to Fireworks

From Firebrands to Fireworks

However you celebrated Independence Day – aka the Fourth of July – today, you may be surprised to learn that the holiday wasn’t always hot dogs, apple pie, parades, and firecrackers.  Indeed, our modern celebrations at lakes, beaches, concerts, and cookouts would likely look rather decadent to the founding fathers.  The 56 firebrands for freedom signed the Declaration of Independence and risked their very lives and livelihoods to first create that most American of holidays.  Here’s a look at some of the surprising history and evolution of our national birthday celebration.


The First Fourth

According to, the Fourth of July tradition of Independence Day celebrations goes back to the 18th century and the American Revolution. “On July 2nd, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted in favor of independence, and two days later delegates from the 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence.”  America’s first celebration occurred immediately after the adoption and public readings of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776, and “included concerts, bonfires, parades, and the firing of cannons and muskets.

Apparently, John Adams, one of the members of the Continental Congress and America’s second president, foresaw the celebrations that would occur, just not on July 4th.  He wrote to his wife that July 2 “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival” and that the celebration should include “Pomp and Parade…Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” Adams was so convinced that July 2nd was America’s Independence Day that he refused any invitations to appear at July 4th celebrations. Despite Adams’ stance, July 4th became the day traditionally associated with America’s independence from Great Britain.

It’s important to remember, as we celebrate America’s independence, that not everyone in America was free.  African American slaves were not granted their freedom until June 19, 1865, following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.  


Let the Holiday Begin

The first organized celebration of Independence Day occurred in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, with bonfire, bells, and fireworks.  In 1781, Massachusetts became the first state to make July 4th an official state holiday.

After America fought Great Britain again in the War of 1812, patriotic celebrations became more common, says  In 1870, Independence Day became a federal holiday, but was not a paid holiday for all federal employees until 1941. 

Interestingly, the White House didn’t hold its first Independence Day celebration until 1801.


Sparklers and Sky Lights

Fireworks were not uncommon during the period of America’s birth – they had been around since 200 BC.  But the tradition of blasting fireworks on Independence Day began in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, when ships fired their cannons in a 13-gun salute in honor of the colonies.   Now, sparklers and bottle rockets are just the beginning of the show and they’re big business. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, Americans spent $2.3 billion on fireworks in 2022. The APA estimates that dollar amount adds up to about 462 million pounds of fireworks sold yearly.

Independence Day fireworks, according to the APA, are legal in some form in 49 states. Ironically, Massachusetts, the first state to declare July 4th a holiday, bans all fireworks.  So, light them up with caution.  The period around Independence Day accounts for the majority of fireworks-related injuries in the U.S.  An estimated 8,500 fireworks-related injuries (or 74 percent of the total estimated fireworks-related injuries in 2021) occurred during the 1-month special study period between June 18 and July 18, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.


Food for the Fourth

Most Americans equate Independence Day with hot dogs or hamburgers cooked to perfection on the grill, but legend has it that turtle soup was on the menu for the first celebration.  According to the Food Literacy Center, John and Abigail Adams likely enjoyed a traditional meal of that era:  turtle soup, poached salmon with egg sauce, green peas, boiled potatoes, and a dessert of Indian pudding or apple Pandowdy.  

Today, barbecue vendors offer presales weeks in advance of the holiday and supermarkets sell tons of charcoal, lighter fluid, wieners, ground beef, and buns.  Don’t forget the condiments, snacks and disposables.   The National Retail Federation says 87 percent of consumers plan to celebrate the Fourth of July in 2023 and spend an average of $93.34 on food items.   Last year, consumers spent $7.7 billion on food and $3.9 billion on alcohol (mostly beer) for Independence Day, according to a Capital One Shopping Research report.


Parade Routes

Bristol, Rhode Island, claims the oldest Independence Day parade in the America. The city’s annual parade began in 1875 and is the oldest continuous celebration in the U.S.  Across the country, cities, and towns hold traditional parades with bands blaring patriotic tunes and floats featuring Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty.  Many neighborhoods have proud traditions of improvised parades of golf carts and bicycles followed by a cookout and music.

Here's hoping your Independence Day celebration was as joyous as John Adams would have wanted – even if he disagreed with the date.


Happy 247th Birthday America!