As we go about celebrating our nation’s 241st birthday, have you ever wondered why we do so with such pyrotechnic histrionics? The rockets’ red glare…the bombs bursting in air?
Well, we owe it all to two sources: the Chinese…and the second president of the United States.
Welcome to the July edition of Not Your Usual Caricature Artist, from Caricatures by Joel.
According to Time Magazine’s online history site, the earliest forms of such benign explosive devices can be traced to China, two millennia ago. Citizens of the Han Dynasty in 200 B.C., roasted bamboo stalks until they would turn black and sizzle, and the air inside the hollow stalks would explode.
"Baozhu" is a Mandarin word for firecracker that translates directly to “exploding bamboo.”
Between 600 and 900 A.D., the idea was taken to the next level by filling bamboo shoots with gunpowder made from saltpeter (potassium nitrate, sulfur, and carbon acquired from charcoal), and throwing them into a fire pit. Steel dust or cast-iron shavings were added to make them sparkle.
Later on, "Chinese fire" was made by crushing old iron pots and scraps into sand and adding the sand to gunpowder. These “firecrackers” were often used during New Year Festivals and weddings to scare off evil spirits.
As the ingredients for gunpowder spread to the West after the Silk Road opened up trade and the Mongols made their way to Europe in the 13th century, so did fireworks,
They became a part of official celebrations, from the annual "Girandola" fireworks display at the Castello Sant'Angelo in Rome to the 1533 coronation of Anne Boleyn as Queen of England.
So it was no surprise that, as soon as July Fourth began to be celebrated as America's Independence Day, fireworks were part of the plan.
And that’s where our fledgling nation’s second president comes in.
At the conclusion of our"Revolutionary War,” John Adams expressed the hope that the anniversary of independence would be marked for years to come by "guns" and "bonfires" and "illuminations."
In peace time, with increasing concern for public safety, those firearms were eventually phased out of the celebrations and replaced almost entirely by the fireworks, which were often given the official stamp of approval in the hope of drawing citizens to public celebrations instead of more dangerous private firework shows.
Today, though fireworks are a well-established July 4 tradition, they've still retained some link to their origins: in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, $296.2 million worth of fireworks were imported to the U.S. from China.
July 4th is a time for festivals. But, of course, festivals – any chance to assemble people for a fun time eating, drinking, socializing, parading and more – are common throughout the year.
Scattered throughout this edition are some folks I’ve drawn at various festivals…celebrating all kinds of cultural and historic touchstones.
For now, though, wishing a safe and Happy Fourth of July to y’all.
And see you the first Tuesday of next month for another star-spangled edition of Not Your Usual Caricature Artist.