4th of July in Columbus – A History


Some things do not change.

For most Americans, The Fourth of July – or Independence Day as it is more formally known – has always been something of a special day. It roughly marks the halfway point of the summer and of the year as well. In a more rural time we could always tell if the season was going properly in Ohio if the corn “was knee-high by the Fourth of July.”

It was – and still is – a time when we take a day off to remember to who we are and how far we have come as a people in the last couple of centuries or so. The Fourth is usually hot in central Ohio and so the holiday is usually one for more casual family gatherings. If we look at pictures of people celebrating the Fourth 100 years ago, we can see that their idea of casual and our idea of casual are considerably different.

In an age where men wore wool suits on formal occasions and ladies always wore long dresses, with hat and gloves, informality consisted in removing one’s coat and maybe one’s hat and sitting at a table full of food with collars all buttoned and neckties firmly tied.

Most people today imagine how uncomfortable these people must have been.

Actually they were not all that uncomfortable at all.

If you grew up in a world lit by fire rather than electricity and a world where most people lived some distance one from another and in a world without texting, facebook or even television, days like the Fourth were very special indeed. And if you grew up in a world without air conditioning and where most clothes were heavy clothes, you would get used to that as well.

The Fourth for the people of those days was much like the Fourth of our own. There were outings to the lake or the park or picnics in the backyard or the clubhouse. And at the end of the day – after a concert or a chorus or simply a little music on the gramophone – people would gather on their porches or in their parks and watch the fireworks.

Over the years fireworks have gotten much more elaborate than they were 100 or even fifty years ago. There are a number of reasons for this. The technology and safety of “pyrotechnic exhibitions” has become much more sophisticated in recent years. Another reason is that fewer and fewer people are setting them off themselves.

In the years after the American Civil War, the easy availability of black powder and inexpensive fireworks meant that more and more families and especially the children in those families were playing with them on the Fourth of July. Some of the fireworks that came to be American staples were relatively harmless. A sparkler can still burn the unwary but mostly they simply sparkle. A cherry bomb or a silver salute is another matter entirely.

And each year the daily papers would report on the Fifth of July the terrible toll of the Fourth of July of people – especially young people – maimed or even killed by fireworks.

Responding to the threat, many states passed laws banning the use of fireworks by anyone who was not licensed to set them off for public presentations. Some states were more flexible in their regulation. But virtually everywhere in America, by the middle of the last century, fireworks were harder and harder to find.

So the public fireworks programs became the show to see.

In Columbus, by the 1980′s, it was the biggest show in central Ohio. Red, White and Boom an extraordinary fireworks extravaganza is held on the 2nd or 3rd of July to not compete with local fireworks shows. Accompanied by stereophonic music along the Scioto Riverfront it has become the place to be for small intimate crowds of half to of a million people.

Some people say we have become less patriotic as a people over the years. We do not look the same, sound the same or act the same as we once did. And that is probably true. But at the end of the day – especially at the end of this day – The Fourth of July – we are Americans all.