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4 Events that Changed How We Celebrate the Fourth of July

American Flag Image

American Independence Day has always been a unique celebration. From the very beginning, in 1776 just one day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, our nation’s 2nd president, John Adams, wrote to his wife predicting the day’s future significance. “I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival… it ought to be solemnized by pomp and parade,” he wrote.

Even during the Revolutionary War in 1777, George Washington stopped to celebrate July 4th by giving his men extra rations and shooting off the canons in salute. We still celebrate what it is to be an American on this day, and though our technology has changed around us, the celebrations do not differ dramatically from the celebrations in the 18th and 19th centuries. We have compiled a list of the different events that have, in some way, changed the original celebration of the fourth of July in America.

The Original Celebrations 1770s-1860s

The original celebrations of Independence Day had several things in common with today’s celebration – the day involved noisy fireworks, many cool drinks, and patriotic parades. However, there were some major differences as well. The fourth of July celebrations were events that would involve the entire town, with Artillery Fire salutes at dawn, small fireworks, armed parades, and political speeches in the morning.

Changes in Fireworks Technology 1830s

Fireworks have existed for around two millennia have been used for entertainment and celebrations since around 800 AD in China, and in the west later in the 13th and 14th centuries. However, those fireworks were all bright orange. Fireworks of different colors weren’t invented until the 1830s, when Italian inventors added in strontium and barium to their mixes. The modern firework – and the ability to shoot off red, white, and blue sparks – was born.

The American Civil War 1861-1865

According to Adam Criblez, the biggest changes in July 4th celebrations took place during the Civil War. During this time, towns did away with the artillery salutes and large public parades in favor of more family-based escapes. Instead of large military parades held by the town, it was preferred to hold more intimate picnics with friends and family, often as fundraisers for the war effort. Celebrations changed from more militaristic to more escapist. Baseball (which was invented as early as the 1700s) was also rapidly gaining in popularity and many would attend a game in celebration of America.

Declaration as a National Holiday 1870

Though July 4th has been celebrated as a holiday since the very first celebration in 1776, it was not declared a national holiday until 1870. By this time, Americans had moved away from large town celebrations (except for the occasional parade and fireworks) and moved toward more of what our modern Independence Day celebrations look like: parties with families and friends, cookouts, baseball games and anything to beat the heat.

No matter how you plan to celebrate this fourth of July, whether with “pomp and parade” as Adams wrote, or in the privacy of your own backyard, your celebrations will probably not differ greatly from those of the first Americans. Celebrate like a colonial and have a happy Independence Day!

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