On July 3, 1776, the day before the Continental Congress adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, at least one wise man thought a big party was in order.
“It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade,” wrote Congressman John Adams to his wife, Abigail, of the document’s initial ratification. “With shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
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Illuminations? We’ve got those. No day on the calendar taps into America’s celebratory spirit quite like July 4, and no matter where our location, chances are we’ll kick back, enjoy the new summer’s warmth, and at day’s end, watch the rockets’ red glare—and every other color in the rainbow—light up the night sky.
Today, the explosive spectacles that Adams envisioned come courtesy of the U.S. pyrotechnics industry, a $900 million-plus annual business that is “pretty recession-proof,” says Julie Heckman, president of the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA). Some communities will scale back this year, she says, but Independence Day celebrations, which account for more than half of industry revenues, are rarely canceled.
Good news, to be sure. But that makes the challenge of picking the country’s best fireworks displays all the harder. Heckman shares her own criteria for magnificence: “It has to do with the way the display is scripted and timed, how it is choreographed to music, how much of the sky is filled at any given time, and whether the whole thing dances.”
To those artistic requirements we added historical significance—explaining the predominance of former Colonial towns on our list, including Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City, which itself typically uses about three times more shells than any other display in the country.
We also considered geographical context, since the physical location is the stage on which the fiery drama is performed. That’s why Mount Rushmore, Cape Cod, and a tiny Texan town called Addison—where the landscape’s flatness and the lack of humidity mean the jaw-dropping effects can be viewed from miles and miles away—made the cut.
True, even a handful of sparklers in the backyard can make for a great evening. But being in the crowd at one of these pyrotechnically bedazzling events constitutes a truly extraordinary July 4th experience.