4th of July Fireworks: A Complete Guide

Everything you've ever wanted to know about fireworks, from their history to the proper usage, in one handy guide.

Most years, the highlight of the summer is the 4th of July firework displays around the country. The bright pops of color in the sky paired with barbeques, all things red, white, and blue, and friends and family make for the perfect celebration. As you start to come up with ideas for the 4th of July, you might be considering going to see one of the best fireworks displays in the United States or buying your own fireworks to set off at home. Before deciding on your Fourth of July fireworks, make sure to learn all about them in the guide below.

Why do we celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks?

Haven’t you always wondered why it’s a tradition to set off explosions of light in the sky on Independence Day? It’s certainly a day for celebration, but why fireworks? Well, the 4th of July history actually involves fireworks and you can thank famous historian John Adams for it.

During the first months of the Revolutionary War, after the 13 colonies had all voted in favor of independence from Britain, Congress began to write a declaration, which became the Declaration of Independence. Before it was even finished and signed, an enthusiastic John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife stating how the occasion of America’s freedom should be celebrated. It read:

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Adams was off by a few days, but the Fourth of July was most certainly celebrated in a way he would have liked.

The first organized Fourth of July fireworks were set off in 1777 in Pennsylvania and Boston (Adam’s hometown) one year after the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported that “the evening was closed with the ring of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.” Boston still has one of the most spectacular fireworks shows on the Fourth and its unique history definitely plays a part in that. In the years following, many more cities took part in July Fourth celebrations including speeches, parades, and picnics in addition to fireworks.

Boston showed their love for the Fourth again when they were the first to designate July 4th as an official holiday in 1783. Then in the 1800s, fireworks started to become available to the public and the sky become even more illuminated on the Fourth. And in 1870, Congress followed making Independence Day a federal holiday.

The bright colors and loud bangs are the perfect way to celebrate America’s freedom year after year.

RELATED: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Independence Day

New York City Manhattan July 4th Independence day fireworks show with skyline over Hudson River viewed from New Jerseyrabbit75_ist/Getty Images

Where to see the best fireworks on the 4th of July

If you want to see a big 4th of July fireworks display this year there are a few around the country that are sure to impress.

New York, New York: Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks

Every year, the Big Apple puts on the largest fireworks show in the country. Thousands of fireworks are set off from barges lining the Hudson River. The lights show is accompanied by the New York Pops Orchestra and Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The best viewing spots are along the West Side Highway below 59th Street or, if you’re on the New Jersey side, anywhere along the waterfront in Weehawken and Hoboken.

Boston, Massachusettes: Boston Pops Concert Fireworks Spectacular

Thousands gather along the Charles River in Boston for their annual 4th of July spectacular. The Boston Pops kick things off at 8 p.m. with the National Anthem and a patriotic sing-a-long. The fireworks start at 10:30 p.m. The best view is from the Esplanade along the Charles River, but if you want to avoid the crowds you can watch them from across the river in Cambridge.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Wawa Welcome America

What better place to celebrate the Fourth of July than right near the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia? There’s a concert and parade during the day and the fireworks start at 10:30 p.m. at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Nashville, Tennessee: Let Freedom Sing!

Since last year’s celebration was canceled, this July Fourth will feature the largest fireworks show in Nashville history. Along with the fireworks, there will be a synchronized performance by the Grammy-winning Nashville Symphony. Music fans will not want to miss this.

Washington D.C.: A Capitol Fourth Concert 

If you’re in our nation’s capital for the Fourth of July, head over to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building for a concert at 8 p.m. Stick around for the fireworks show a little after 9 p.m. launched from the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Watching the bright lights illuminate the sky behind the Washington Monument is truly a sight to see.

Chicago, Illinois: 4th of July Aon Summer Fireworks

Fireworks displays are pretty common in Chicago as they set them off often throughout the summer season, but the 4th of July fireworks display is certainly the biggest. The fireworks are set off from Navy Pier and the best views are from the Pier, the Ferris wheel on the pier, or Millenium Park.

Houston, Texas: Freedom Over Texas

Everything really is bigger in Texas, and they prove that with their annual Fourth of July fireworks show. It’s the largest land-based fireworks show in the United States. The show is set off from Buffalo Bayou in the park, just west of Sabine Bridge and the downtown area. The celebration was canceled in 2020 due to COVID, and they have yet to announce if the 2021 show will take place.

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Firework safety

If you choose to forego the big firework displays around the country and set off your own, know that fireworks are no joke. All fireworks, even those fun novelties, and sparklers can be dangerous when not used safely. According to the 2020 CPSC fireworks safety report, there were an estimated 7,300 injuries just in the one month surrounding the Fourth of July in 2019, and about 2,600 of those injuries happened to kids 14 years old and younger.

Firework safety begins at home, but don’t shoot them off near your house or off your deck. That’s just too close and could start a fire. Fireworks should be lit away from buildings and on a flat, level, hard, and fireproof surface with no debris like trash or vegetation that could catch on fire. Also, don’t light fireworks under power lines or anything combustible, like a propane tank. Keep a bucket full of water close by and a garden hose. Be sure to turn the faucet on and ensure the water is running to the hose, so should you need to, you can put out a fire immediately. To stay safe this year, make sure to follow the firework safety tips below.

Adult supervision is a must

When it comes to firework safety tips and children, the CPSC makes it pretty clear—never allow young children to play with or ignite fireworks. Even sparklers, which kids have been waving around for hundreds of years, are quite dangerous. When you get down to it, it’s a very pointy object that burns as hot a blow torch—about 2,000 degrees. “Extreme care must be practiced when sparklers are used and only under close adult supervision,” says Julie Heckman, executive director at American Pyrotechnics Association (APA). Sparkler injuries accounted for about 500 injuries in tots five years old and younger.

Dress for the occasion

If you’re going to set some fireworks off, don’t do it barefoot. Heckman says to wear closed-toe shoes and safety glasses to protect your eyes, keep long hair pulled back, and don’t wear clothes with loose hanging fabric that could catch fire. If possible, use a utility-style lighter for a safer distance between your arm and the fuse. Also, absolutely do not smoke while around fireworks.

Be alert and sober

BBQs and beer go hand in hand on the Fourth, but if you don’t want to lose a hand (or hurt someone else), don’t drink and set off fireworks. Not to mention, even large gatherings are dangerous in and of themselves this year, so wear masks, maintain social distancing, and keep the guest list on the smaller side if you do hold a Fourth of July get-together. An incident in the CPSC report tells of a 61-year old man who died after lighting a firework the wrong way, causing it to hit him in the chest. He had been drinking during the day, and police found many empty alcohol containers at the scene. Spectators, be careful when it comes to drinking alcohol too.

Pet care

Keep your pets inside. Even if they aren’t afraid of the noise or lights, a dog or cat’s curiosity about the fireworks could get them hurt or they could walk or run into the path of a firework.

RELATED: Why Are Dogs So Scared of Fireworks?

Check the weather

The weather is actually a significant factor in firework safety, and it’s not just rain that can dampen the festivities. High winds conditions aren’t safe for lighting fireworks. Fireworks can tip over or the wind could send them in the path of spectators or passersby. Light fireworks with the prevailing wind blowing away from the spectators.

Keep spectators safe

Spectators should be watching from a safe distance. Heckman says for fountain and cone fireworks; spectators should be at least 25 feet away and for aerial fireworks at least 40 feet away. Remember, each state and municipality have specific laws regarding fireworks; check to find out which are legal in your state.

Never do these things with fireworks

Don’t shoot fireworks from a metal or glass container and never aim fireworks at another person. Don’t carry fireworks in your pocket. Never place any part of your body directly over a firework device. Never bundle fireworks for a bigger bang. It be might be tempting to combine fireworks or take them apart to make your own creation, but the CPSC says never to light more than one firework at a time. Don’t relight a firework that didn’t go off the first time; it still could go off and explode. If you see a firework on the ground, leave it. There’s no telling why it’s on the ground. Report it to the police or fire department. If you’re a parent, be sure to warn your kids of this danger.

Don’t be in a rush to pick up spent fireworks. Let them stand for at least 20 minutes before you pick them up, or you could get burned. Next, submerge all the fireworks in a bucket of water and let them soak overnight. (The same goes for duds, except to be extra safe and scoop them up with a shovel and then submerge in water.) Remove the soaked fireworks from the bucket and place them in a trash bag and dispose of them with your other household trash. Firework safety, prep, and cleanup are a lot of work.

low angle of american flag fourth of july decorations with fireworks bursting in the backgroundDina Alfasi/EyeEm/Getty Images

Where are fireworks legal?

Because of the risks that come along with setting off fireworks, many states have strict regulations on them. The only state that completely bans all consumer fireworks is Massachusetts. Ohio, Illinois, and Vermont only allow wire or wood stick sparklers and a few other novelty items. The remaining 46 states plus Washington D.C. allow consumer fireworks in some form. The restrictions vary a lot from state to state though, so before buying and setting off Fourth of July fireworks make sure to look up your local laws.

To learn more about the specific rules and regulations, read up on the states where fireworks are illegal.

Where to buy fireworks

Again, where you can buy fireworks is going to depend a lot on where you live. If you’re looking for something small, like sparklers, those can typically be found at your local department or grocery store. Larger fireworks are typically sold from firework stores, online, or from roadside stands that start to pop up around the Fourth. Before purchasing any fireworks to set off, read up on your local laws and make sure you’re prepared to set them off safely.

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Fun facts about fireworks

  • It’s amazing how a firework can end up looking like a chrysanthemum or smiley face when it has only three main components—an oxidizer, a fuel, and a chemical mixture to produce the color. The ingredients are placed in a small tube called an aerial shell. The explosive materials are called stars that form the colorful spheres, cubes, cylinders, and other shapes that explode into complex designs.
  • To get fireworks into the air, the aerial shells are placed in a tube called a mortar. Fireworks staff light a fast-acting fuse below the shell that contains gunpowder and the gunpowder explodes, creating a build-up of heat and gas and a whole lot of pressure. When the pressure reaches critical mass, off it goes up into the sky. But that’s not the end. Once the shell is high off the ground, another fuse inside the aerial shell that’s on a time delay ignites, causing the bursting charge to explode and light up all those stars you see from the ground.
  • How do the components in a cylinder end up looking like a heart, smiley face, or an acronym? They are created in an aerial shell with embedded colored stars laid out in a pattern of the desired shape. There’s filler in between the stars that are usually a quickly burning composite that is light and doesn’t compete with the stars. The stars with greater mass travel farther than the lighter stars.
  • Brilliant, glowing colors come from different metal elements. When the chemicals in fireworks burn, energy is released in the form of light. The chemicals burn in different wavelengths of light depending on the metal element. For example, deep reds are the result of burning strontium and lithium compounds; barium gives off a green color, and copper produces blues. Blue, however, is a fickle hue and considered the most difficult to produce because the copper compound has to be heated just right to give off a brilliant blue color. If it burns too hot, the color is lost, and if it’s too low, there is no intensity.
  • After a firework expends itself, the remaining debris is biodegradable paper and a small amount of carbon.

Sources: 

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Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is an Associate Editor at Reader’s Digest. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. She writes for rd.com, helps lead the editorial relationship with our partners, manages our year-round interns, and keeps the hundreds of pieces of content our team produces every month organized. In her free time, she likes exploring the seacoast of Maine where she lives and works remotely full time and snuggling up on the couch with her corgi, Eggo, to watch HGTV or The Office.
Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.