Brooklyn Boro

Ask a historian: What’s the story of fireworks in Brooklyn?

July 2, 2019 John B. Manbeck
Fireworks above the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983. AP Photo/Richard Drew

Joan from DUMBO asks: I just love the Fourth of July fireworks. When did they begin?

Long ago and far away. The Chinese had invented fireworks and used them to keep away evil spirits. Then officials decided to use them in official ceremonies as a celebration. But I assume you mean in the United States of America.

Fireworks, obviously, were an outgrowth of war with “bombs bursting in air.” So, when our first big war, the American Revolution, ended, the celebration lit up the sky with FIREWORKS! Boy, that was fun. Let’s do it again on George Washington’s inauguration in 1789! And on New Year’s Eve! And again, on Independence Day, the Fourth of July!

You see how this can become a habit.

Then the artistic challenge surfaced: how to add variety and color with pyrotechnic stars. And safety from mortars and shrapnel. In New York, we observe a “safe and sane” Fourth. That means restricting personal fireworks to sparklers. (Ha!)

Fireworks symbolize a celebration. The birth of a new country justified a party. While the War of 1812 merely added punctuation to the Revolution, the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 deserved a resounding bang over New York’s City Hall. The next explosive party marked completion of the Transatlantic Telephone Cable in 1858. Without that cable, where would our cell phones be?

As for danger? City Hall’s cupola burned in that party.

July 4, 1876. That was the American Centennial celebrated in New York and Philadelphia.

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Brooklyn had its own party on May 24, 1883, with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, using 6,000 four-pound skyrockets, 400 bombshells and 125 fountains of colored lights. The party recruited 40 pyrotechnicians who supervised a Niagara Falls of fireworks flowing from the bridge.

The Statue of Liberty received its tribute in 1886 with lights and explosions from Bedloe’s (now Liberty) and Governor’s islands.

A welcome for Adm. George Dewey, rather than for his battleship, occurred in 1899 for his victory in the Spanish-American War. He was honored by an arch over Fifth Avenue and fireworks over the city and on the waterways.

From the June 21, 1914, edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
From the June 21, 1914, edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The Williamsburg Bridge, not to be outdone by the Brooklyn Bridge, celebrated the opening of the second East River bridge in 1903 with a kaleidoscope of colors from huge rockets. The Manhattan Bridge missed a party in 1912, perhaps because it wasn’t completed until 1916.

Another July 4 in 1939 signified the opening of the New York World’s Fair in Queens. This time two displays of fire, water and music marked the occasion.

In 1976 and 1983 two repeat performances: America’s Bicentennial on July 4, 1976, introduced Macy’s as a fireworks sponsor, with the display orchestrated by Grucci. On May 24, 1983, the 100th birthday of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge dazzled onlookers with a televised presentation.

Fireworks have been a segment of summer in Coney Island since the 19th century. At Manhattan Beach, a daily panorama of drama and fireworks combined re-enactments of historic battles at a lake outside the Manhattan Beach Hotel. Not only pyrotechnicians but acrobats and actors participated in this daily performance. James Paine and the Alexandra Exhibition Company imported fireworks from London. When Paine took his fireworks to Brighton Beach, Henry Brock and his Crystal Palace Fireworks Company replaced him.

The popularity of fireworks is not limited to the U.S. On Bastille Day, July 14, fireworks shower down from the Eiffel Tower. England explodes with fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, which celebrates the foiling of the “gun powder plot” in 1605. Halloween has added fireworks to international festivities. Festivals and competitions of sound and lights erupt in Montreal, Manilla, Japan, Monaco and Malta.

Even music has joined the festivity: George Handel wrote “Music for the Royal Fireworks” to honor the 1749 Peace Treaty. And what would the “1812 Overture” be without a gun salute and a fireworks finale?

Locally, Coney Island introduced weekly fireworks in the 1930s and maintains the tradition. Prospect Park celebrates New Year’s Eve with a display.

Fireworks at Disneyland started in 2004. Everything there is automated and choreographed with computerized discharges launched by compressed air, not gunpowder. All displays are electronically timed, programmed and environmentally friendly.

BOOM!

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below.

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