Just thinking about the Fourth of July can evoke flavors of juicy watermelon and the char of a perfect hot dog. We can hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” played by a local stringed and bearded band and see the colorful explosions of billowing bursts blanketing the sky. We can hear the crackle of sparklers and the shrieks of delighted children. Fireworks are tied with many family memories and, perhaps, mishaps. Cities spend millions on firework productions that draw tourists in droves, while displays in small-town U.S.A. unite neighbors at community-wide festivals.
Fireworks have a long and intriguing history within our Independence Day celebrations, but they have also proved a polarizing concept for many. It’s hard to ignore all of the random summer blasts that are more of a nuisance than an oh-look-at-the-fireworks joy. Some early-to-bed neighbors, kids, and pets become peeved this time of year.
“Welcome to fireworks season. It lasts from the end of June until about Labor Day,” one man writes on the notorious East Nashville Facebook group of 65,700+ members in response to another member pleading that people “pipe down on the fireworks” in a June 27 posting. Another person adds, “Have you tried Nashville, Illinois? It’s much quieter there.”
FIREWORKS’ HIGH-FLYING HISTORY
The first “firecrackers” originated in the second century B.C. in ancient Liuyang, China, as hollow natural bamboo stalks that “popped” to ward off evil spirits. Around 600-900 AD, the Chinese developed the first version of gunpowder that was then poured into bamboo to create the first man-made firework. They made their way to excited Europeans in the 13th century, who used them widely for entertainment and religious festivals. Early U.S. settlers brought their fervent love of fireworks with them to the New World, and fireworks were part of the very first organized celebration of Independence Day in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777.
The tradition flourished after the War of 1812, in which the United States faced Great Britain again. Congress made July 4th a federal holiday in 1870, and it became a paid holiday to all federal employees in 1941. Some 80 years later, Independence Day remains an important national holiday and a symbol of patriotism to many Americans. It’s become more about leisure activities, friendly gatherings, and consumption of outdoor and grilled food varieties. And fireworks. A lot of fireworks.
THE BUSINESS OF FIREWORKS
Fireworks shows generate some serious dollars for local economies. Thunder Over Louisville, for example, was one of the country’s largest fireworks displays pre-pandemic, and an economic study conducted by the Derby Festival determined that the event generated more than $56 million for the local economy.
- One report found that the United States imported about $319,270,828 worth of fireworks in 2019. Just look at the value of the top five states’ imported fireworks, and the cost per person in that state.
- Missouri — $51,088,748 ($8.34 per capita)
- Mississippi — $42,258,550 ($0.76 per capita)
- Ohio — $30,444,688 ($2.60 per capita)
- Alabama — $28,353,392 ($5.80 per capita)
- South Carolina — $18,913,998 ($3.72 per capita)
- A small-town display can cost more than $2,000 per minute or $20,000 in total. Large city shows range from hundreds of thousands and into the millions.
- The larger shells need about an 840-foot radius to achieve that billowing shape we all know, and they can cost about $350 each (the cost is likely much higher now that there is a shortage).
GOOD LUCK FINDING THEM THIS YEAR
In 2020, people stocked up on fireworks like crazy. Many set them off in backyards for makeshift celebrations or saved them for 2021, now that there is arguably more reason to celebrate. But with the current supply chain issues and increased demand, supply has gone down almost 30% according to NPR. Some fireworks stores are shuttering, and others are hiking up prices to absurd amounts. The 100-pound party assortment called “The Godfather” is allegedly going for $650 this year, up $100 from last year. We have heard of people crossing multiple state lines to scoop up as many pounds of fireworks as possible. If you have not gotten your hands on your own stash, your city’s organized fireworks show is likely back this year, and the pros have ample fireworks on hand from the canceled shows of 2020. Find a fabulous place to enjoy them safely.
SAFETY ADVOCATES ARE HAPPY
In the same NPR article, Susan McKelvey of the National Fire Protection Association points out that fireworks cause fires, and about half of the reported fires caused by recreational pyrotechnics happen on the Fourth of July. They can also hurt people. According to the 2019 Fireworks Annual Report, about 10,000 injuries occur each year due to fireworks. But serious fireworks-related injuries spiked alongside sales last year, jumping 57%. Emergency rooms saw about 15,600 people last year, many of them children and men. If you’re creating your own backyard display or even handing out sparklers at a soirée, stay vigilantly safe, and remember that pyrotechnics and alcohol don’t mix well.
ONE REFLECTION ON A FIREWORKS TRADITION
Many of us have a story or two about childhood firework mishaps. “My dad LOVED fireworks and didn’t miss an opportunity to blow something up,” Blueprint.Inc’s Director of Sales Ginny Staggs weighs in. “We even shot fireworks at Christmas. When I was little, the only fireworks Mom and Dad thought were safe for me were sparklers and poppers. One July 4th evening 57 years ago, I was enjoying a particularly fat sparkler in the front yard. Dad sat on the porch and watched me dancing in delight, but one of the ‘sparkles’ had landed on my sock and my foot was on fire. He sat there a good couple of minutes before he realized what was going on and ripped off my shoe and sock. No hospital attention was required, but I still have a scar!”
“Those little multi-colored poppers that were supposed to be so safe were great to throw down on the concrete porch,” she adds, “but they were taken off the market because kids thought they were candy. Surprise! Thankfully, I wasn’t one of them. Just part of being raised in the ’60s along with riding in the back of the truck, no seatbelts or helmets!”
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MORE FUN FIREWORKS FACTS
- Due to the height at which fireworks explode and the distance of the audience to the actual fireworks for safety reasons, there can be a significant noticeable delay between sound and sight. The speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound in the air. Light travels 186,000 miles in 1 second, while sound takes almost 5 seconds to travel 1 mile! (source)
- There are more than 20 shapes of display fireworks we see in the air. If you really want to nerd out, check out this glossary to figure out your favorite shape.
- Forty-six states and Washington, D.C. allow some or all consumer fireworks permitted by federal regulation.
- Three states — Illinois, Ohio, and Vermont — only allow wood and wood stick sparklers and other novelty items.
- Massachusetts has banned all consumer fireworks.
- Find your state’s specific fireworks sales regulations here, and have a safe and legal celebration this year!
Here’s to a safe and fireworks-filled Fourth of July!
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