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July 2, 2014

From the Beginning, There Were Fireworks

By Ben Swenson

The fireworks show was a dud.

The scene: Williamsburg, 1702.

The occasion: The death of King William III.

The monarch’s passing inspired a tribute that included music, cannonades and a lights show like the colonial capital had never seen. All was well until the master of ceremonies who was supposed to light the fireworks instead ignited a container filled with them.

“As there were all kinds of fireworks, many and large rockets” wrote Swiss visitor Francis Louis Michel, who witnessed the blunder, “he like others had to run, and he had his clothes burnt.”

This work by Captain Robert Jones shows different kinds of early fireworks.

This work by Captain Robert Jones shows different kinds of early fireworks.

The pageant proceeded nonetheless, but Act II wasn’t any better.

“This was done with a reversed rocket, which was to pass along a string to an arbor, where prominent ladies were seated, but it got stuck halfway and exploded. Two stars were to be made to revolve through the fireworks, but they succeeded no better than with the rockets. In short, nothing was successful.”

The strangest thing of all? Everyone loved it anyway: “Most of the people,” wrote Michel, “had never seen such things, and praised them highly.”

Rest assured the fireworks that illuminate the Revolutionary City more than two centuries later go off with a few more safety protocols in place. Thousands of guests descend on Colonial Williamsburg every July 4th to celebrate our nation’s birth, and with good reason.

Independence Day in this restored 18th-century town has a special appeal, and not just because the festivities include music, period military demonstrations, a reading of the Declaration of Independence¬† and, of course, a dazzling fireworks show. It’s also that attendees are standing in a place where colonial Americans helped make our freedom possible. Whether spectators know it or not, they’re carrying on a long tradition of lighting up the sky to celebrate.

Fireworks had been around for more than a thousand years by the 18th century. Rocket-type fireworks lit at ground level were common by then. They shot skyward and exploded in a shower of sparkling light, similar to those used in modern exhibitions.

Stationary fireworks that streamed fountains of flames and sparks were also popular. From these basic designs, pyrotechnic engineers created all sorts of variations, such as the pinwheel and jumping cracker, the floating sparkler and the Roman candle. Among the fireworks one Mr. Gardiner included in a variety show in Williamsburg in 1772 were “caterine wheels [pinwheels], Italian candles, sea fountains and sun flowers.” (And lucky for Mr. Gardiner, there were no reports of accidental discharges at his production.)

While 18th-century fireworks weren’t much to scoff at, there was one notable difference in fireworks our early American ancestors enjoyed: They only came in a couple colors — a flame-orange shade and something close to white. They were mostly made of gunpowder and often filled with steel or iron filings, which produced the same couple shades every time. It wasn’t until the 19th century introduction of color-producing additions that the hues began to take off.

This print published in London depicts an 18th-century fireworks display at a country estate.

This print published in London depicts an 18th-century fireworks display at a country estate.

Two-toned though they were, many 18th-century fireworks shows made up in quantity what they lacked on the color spectrum. Elaborate displays of pyrotechnics were a particular favorite among royalty and noblemen, who often celebrated special occasions with fireworks. One typical hourlong display over London’s River Thames celebrating the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 included 3,800 rockets, not to mention all the sparkling fountains that never left the ground.

More modest shows illuminated American cities like Williamsburg on the monarch’s birthday and when dignitaries, such as the governor’s wife, arrived in town.

One early American fireworks display in particular is worth remembering. Exactly a year after declaring independence from Great Britain, Philadelphians honored that anniversary on July 4, 1777, “with demonstrations of joy and festivity,” according to The Virginia Gazette. The revelry, says the notice, included toasts, music and artillery fire saluting each of the 13 states. The night concluded with “a grand exhibition of fireworks … on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.”

Sounds exactly like Colonial Williamsburg celebration.

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