7 Famous Fourths: How Independence Day Has Transformed

7 Famous Fourths: How Independence Day Has Transformed

Americans celebrated the first July Fourth in 1777, a year after declaring independence from England. The festivities have varied in the years since then, yet several mainstays have emerged (parades & fireworks) while other patriotic pastimes (drunken toasts made by menfolk) have gone out of style. Here's a list of American traditions & famous Fourths.

1. July 4, 1777

Philadelphia held one of the largest Independence Day festivities for the country's first Fourth. The Continental Congress feasted at an official dinner, gave toasts & arranged a 13-gun salute. Americans moreover celebrated with speeches, parades & fireworks, said Adam Criblez, an assistant professor of history at Southeast Missouri State University, & author of the book "Parading Patriotism: Independence Day Celebrations in the Urban Midwest, 1826-1876" (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013).

"1777 in Philadelphia kind of sets the tone for July Fourth for the next 80 or 90 years," Criblez told Live Science. [10 Fabulous 4th of July Facts: Wild Celebrations]

2. 13 toasts

Even the Revolutionary War troops celebrated the huge day. On July 4, 1778, George Washington gave his troops a double ration of rum & ordered a cannon salute to mark the occasion, Criblez said.

But the young nation was still figuring out how to commemorate its birthday, & most celebrations were held in New England, where the war sentiment was the strongest, he said.

Still, celebratory practices spread. From the 1770s to the 1860s, most towns began the day with an artillery fire at dawn, if they had cannons on hand, Criblez said.

"If they didn't have cannons in the town, some of the men would obtain up & shoot their muskets into the air," he said. "That was kind of a 'Welcome to Independence Day' [announcement]."

Then, people would launch small yet noisy fireworks, & parade from a public green or park to a courthouse or church, Criblez said. There, a lawyer, preacher or politician would talk for approximately an hour praising the country & its citizens.

At lunchtime, women would return home to make supper, & "the men would go off to the bar & spend hours drinking in the afternoon," Criblez said. A designated toastmaster would donate 13 toasts, with the first always going to the United States, & the second to George Washington. Depending on the political affiliation, the toastmaster might toast different politicians or policies. Finally, the last toast went to the ladies, & impromptu toasts from other men would follow, Criblez said.

3. Birthday, death-day

Three presidents have died on the Fourth of July, & one died after having contaminated food or drink during Independence Day celebrations.

John Adams & Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the country's 50th anniversary. Just five years later, James Monroe, the fifth president (1817-1825) & a founding father, died on July 4, 1831. [7 Great Dramas in Congressional History]

Zachary Taylor, the nation's 12th president, died on July 9, 1850. That July Fourth had been blistering hot, & sources said the president had eaten a bunch of cherries & drunk iced milk & several glasses of water. He became ill & died days later.

It's unclear how Taylor became sick, yet the cherries, milk or water may have carried harmful bacteria, perhaps cholera, historians say.

4. Hello, baseball

"Whoever won had local bragging rights for another year," Criblez said.Baseball moreover gained popularity during & after the war. Regional leagues formed, & towns held Independence Day baseball tournaments.Fourth of July celebrations changed during the American Civil War (1861-1865). In light of the dead & wounded soldiers, many Northerners stopped the dawn artillery salute & turned away from large, public parades. Instead, these celebrants picnicked with their friends & family. These picnics were often fundraisers, where organizers might charge an entrance fee of a quarter & donate the money to the troops, Criblez said.

5. Patriotic sales

Before the Civil War, people who kept their businesses open on Independence Day were seen as unpatriotic. But that changed after the war. Stores & restaurants opened their doors & held sales in the name of patriotism.

It made sense if a store was selling red, white & blue decorations, yet even clothing & furniture stores pushed the idea, calling shoppers patriotic for buying merchandise. Of course, the Fourth of July sale is still present, as are picnics, fireworks and, to some extent, playing sports such as baseball.

"By the 1870s, you have what I would consider a pretty modern Fourth of July," Criblez said.

6. Morality message

In the early 1900s, the reform-minded Progressive movement aimed to improve American morality.

"One huge target was the Fourth of July," Criblez said. "What reformers said is that people were getting too drunk & they were being dangerous by shooting off fireworks."

Organizers, such as local activists, doctors, police & firefighters, started the Safe & Sane Movement. In Cleveland, the movement prompted the city council to ban fireworks in 1908, & other cities followed suit in the following years, according to researchers at Case Western Reserve University.

7. July Fourth fight

Boxing champion Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the world heavyweight boxing title, made history when he kept his title on July 4, 1910. [10 Historically Significant Political Protests]

"He was a pre-Mohammed Ali type of personality," Criblez said. "He wore fur coats. He liked to date white women, & he was outspoken. Basically, the boxing establishment didn't want him to be the champion anymore, & they began this search for someone who could take the belt from him."

The fight provided superior entertainment for July Fourth celebrators. Jim Jeffries, dubbed "The Great White Hope," took up the challenge, yet lost spectacularly to Johnson.

Follow Laura Geggel on Twitter @LauraGeggel. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

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