Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Pyrotechnic nuts share the craziest new firework trends.
Billboards start cropping up at least 100 miles from the border. Patriotic neon bundles cry out, Explosive fun! This way. Next exit.
Amateur pyromaniacs travel the path from Illinois to Indiana to skirt restrictions on fireworks. The shops are clustered around the state borders; Uncle Sam Fireworks is less than 20 feet from the line. Every year, the shops cater to customers who want bigger explosions, brighter colors, and even more novelty.
It’s no secret that fireworks can be dangerous. (In a given year, July 4th festivities send about 11,400 people to hospital emergency rooms.) That’s why a handful of municipalities have introduced campaigns urging residents setting off their own displays to opt for “safe and sane” choices, The Californian reports. What tends to be discouraged or banned? Anything that “rises into the air, moves across the ground, or may discharge flaming balls that can explode.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, fireworks peddlers suggest that buyers aren’t clamoring for these options.
“People love anything that’s loud. They’re looking for the big boom,” says Miranda Panos, a manager at Uncle Sam Fireworks in Hammond, Indiana. Her family has been in the fireworks business for 50 years. “My dad used to go to trade shows to find the new stuff, but now he’s got the hookup,” Panos says. This year, she says, the shop’s popular items include whistlers, cracklers, or “screaming dragons,” which mimic the sound of the a blood-curdling screech.
July 4th is all about excess. The frankfurter bonanza at Nathan’s Famous at Coney Island—famously televised on ESPN2—celebrates the act of cramming dozens of encased meats down your gullet. We go all out with our festive meat and entertainment. In 2012, Americans spent upwards of $1 billion on more than 200 million pounds of fireworks, The Atlantic reported.
Phantom Fireworks in Fort Mill, South Carolina, brings out the big guns. Their top sellers include “rockets that produce smiley faces or lighting bolts in the air,” says manager David Smith. The store offers coupons to entice shoppers to come stock up as early as May. “We have people drive six hours, as far as Virginia,” Smith says. The store offers 500-gram aerial fireworks, the “maximum powder weight permitted by law.” Shoppers flood the store to get their hands on them. “We have a lot next door that we run overflow parking into,” Smith adds.
The large-scale explosions will cost you. Many (including the hypnotic series of glittery-tailed strobes in the video below) cost at least $70 for just 30 seconds of eardrum-rupturing bliss.
Professional fireworks shows also face pressure to make shows even more over-the-top. The Alliance for Coney Island hosts fireworks displays on Friday evenings throughout the summer at a total cost of about $150,000, estimates executive director Johanna Zaki. For Independence Day festivities, though, they have to up the ante. Zaki says that the July 4th choreography “feels like a grand finale during the whole 15 minutes.”
Our gluttony for explosive entertainment isn’t new. Slate argues it may have started with John Adams. On July 3, 1776, he wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, suggesting that the occasion be celebrated “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.” We’re just doing our patriotic duty.