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The Story Behind Times Square's New Year's Eve Celebration

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Tonight, over a million revelers will pack into New York’s Times Square to watch 2014 turn into 2015. The festivities will be marked by the descent of 2688 crystal triangles and 32,256 lights that comprise the iconic New Year's Eve ball, which has its own Twitter account with more than 15,000 followers. So before the champagne starts flowing and the countdown kicks off to a proverbial clean slate, let's take a look back at the history of this annual celebration.

How did Times Square become “Times Square”?

In 1904, construction was completed on a 25-story skyscraper on the triangle of land created by the intersections of 42nd Street, 43rd Street, 7th Avenue, and Broadway. It was to be the new headquarters of the New York Times. That same year, the city had plans to open the first set of underground subway lines with 28 different stations. Grand Central Station was also located on 42nd Street, and a number of stations followed Broadway’s route through the city. It was, supposedly, an attempt to avoid nominal confusion regarding the station at the base of the Times’ tower that first led to the suggestion that the city should change the name of the surrounding area from “Long Acre Square” to "Times Square." Reports differ as to whether the idea to rename the relatively underutilized collection of intersections originally came from Adolph S. Ochs, the publisher of the Times from 1896 to 1935, or from August Belemont, President of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. Regardless of who first thought to apply the paper’s name from the building to the geography, in early April, the Board of Aldermen approved the resolution and, on April 8, the signature of Mayor George B. McClellan made it official. The next morning a headline on Page 2 of the Times read ''Times Square Is the Name of City's New Centre.''

A New New Year's Celebration

As 1904 drew to a close, Ochs wanted to celebrate the paper’s impending move in January to their recently completed Times Tower, officially bearing the address of One Times Square. In prior years, the city had celebrated New Year’s Eve at Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan, where the ringing of bells marked the change in the calendar. But sparing no expense, Ochs officially launched a new tradition with an opulent celebration, to the delight of 200,000 attendees. Fanciulli’s Concert Band, featured performers at the St. Louis World’s Fair earlier in the year, provided the soundtrack to the final moments of 1904. TheTimes touted its own publicity stunt the next morning in an article called “BIG NEW YEAR FETE AT TIMES SQUARE: Mammoth Crowd Centres There for Celebration.” 

“As the old year died and 1905 was born the news flared out from the tower of the Times Building to the north and to the south, in giant figures which took on all the colors of the rainbow and bore the tidings to thousands who waited and watched over many miles of territory,” the article read. The rainbow came in the form of fireworks that transformed the building into “a torch to usher in the new born, funeral pyre for the old.”

But What About The Ball?

New York rang in the New Year with fireworks as 1905 turned into 1906, and again as 1906 turned into 1907. But then, in 1907, the city banned the fireworks display for safety reasons, and Ochs had to find a different means to signify the city’s annual rebirth. In a January 1, 1908 article, the Times commemorated the event: “At ten minutes to midnight the whistles on every boiler in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and the waters thereof began to screech. Tens of thousands stood watching the electric ball and then—it fell.” The new ceremony was chosen to mimic the ball drop at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, which has signaled 1pm for Londoners and ship captains on the Thames since 1833. There, the object of focus is a simple bright red ball. But for Times Square, Ochs commissioned something a little more elaborate: a behemoth 700-pound wood-and-iron creation, five feet in diameter and illuminated by 100 25-watt bulbs. It was built by Russian immigrant Jacob Starr while he worked for Benjamin Strauss in a family-owned sign making company, Strauss Signs. Strauss and Starr later formed Artkraft Strauss, which produced the ball drop up through 1996.

Notable Exceptions

The ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve has been a remarkably consistent tradition since that first voyage on the precipice of 1908—with two notable exceptions. The New York Times noted the melancholy of the event’s first absence: “New Year’s Eve in Times Square had a weird quality last night …There was a note of sluggishness, an absence of real gayety. The restless thousands lacked zest. War somehow laid its hand on the celebration and tended to mute it. At midnight, the crowd watched in vain for the glowing white ball to slide down the flag staff atop the New York Times tower.” That was the story on January 1, 1943, after a wartime dim-out on lights replaced the glowing orb and a respectful moment of silence hung heavy in place of cheers or jubilation. A similar story the following year noted another New Year's darkened by the War.

The New Year’s Ball Ever Since

The iconic symbol has seen several upgrades through the past century-plus. In 1920, an entirely wrought-iron version lobbed 300 pounds off the original weight. Aluminum got the heft down to roughly 200 pounds in 1955. The same aluminum construction got a makeover in the early 1980s, when red lights and a green stem turned the classic orb into a Big Apple in accordance with the “I <3 NY” campaign. A short-lived white ball sat at the center of the ceremony from 1987 through 1998, during which time computer controls replaced manual labor. Waterford Crystal designed the Millennium Ball for the 2000 ceremony, which has undergone aesthetic adjustments each year since. 

As for One Times Square, the original raison d'etre of the whole shebang? The New York Times outgrew the building in 1913 and these days, apart from a Walgreens on the first floor and the offices of New Year's Eve production company Countdown Entertainment on the 22nd floor, the skyscraper is completely empty. But it remains the focus of the nation’s gaze on New Year’s Eve.

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10 Things You Didn't Know About the Fourth of July
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With 242 years of tradition behind it, the Fourth of July is one of America’s most cherished holidays. It's when we celebrate our nation's mythology with a day off, a backyard barbecue, and plenty of fireworks. But with all that history, you'd be forgiven if you didn't know quite everything about July 4. So from the true story behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to some staggering hot dog statistics, here are 10 things you might not know about the Fourth of July.

1. THE DECLARATION WASN'T SIGNED ON JULY 4 (OR IN JULY AT ALL).

John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumbull [Public domain] // Wikimedia Commons

It might make for an iconic painting, but that famous image of all the Founding Fathers and Continental Congress huddled together, presenting the first draft of the Declaration of Independence for July 4, 1776 signing, isn't quite how things really went down. As famed historian David McCullough wrote, "No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia."

It's now generally accepted that the Declaration of Independence wasn't signed on the Fourth of July—that's just the day the document was formally dated, finalized, and adopted by the Continental Congress, which had officially voted for independence on July 2 (the day John Adams thought we should celebrate). Early printed copies of the Declaration were signed by John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson to be given to military officers and various political committees, but the bulk of the other 54 men signed an official engrossed (finalized and in larger print) copy on August 2, with others to follow at a later date. Hancock (boldly) signed his name again on the updated version.

So if you want to sound like a history buff at your family's barbecue this year, point out that we're celebrating the adoption of the Declaration, not the signing of it.

2. THE FIRST CELEBRATIONS WEREN'T MUCH DIFFERENT THAN TODAY'S.

After years of pent-up frustration, the colonies let loose upon hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Military personnel and civilians in the Bowling Green section of Manhattan tore down a statue of King George III and later melted it into bullets; the King’s coat of arms was used as kindling for a bonfire in Philadelphia; and in Savannah, Georgia, the citizens burnt the King in effigy and held a mock funeral for their royal foe.

Independence Day celebrations began to look a bit more familiar the following year, as the July 18, 1777 issue of the Virginia Gazette describes the July 4 celebration in Philadelphia:

"The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal."

There were even ships decked out in patriotic colors lining harbors and streamers littering city streets. Once you get past the mock funerals and rioting of 1776, modern Independence Day celebrations have stuck pretty close to the traditions started in 1777.

3. EATING SALMON ON THE FOURTH IS A TRADITION IN NEW ENGLAND.

The tradition of eating salmon on the Fourth of July began in New England as kind of a coincidence. It just so happened that during the middle of the summer, salmon was in abundance in rivers throughout the region, so it was a common sight on tables at the time. It eventually got lumped in to the Fourth and has stayed that way ever since, even with the decline of Atlantic salmon.

To serve salmon the traditional New England way, you'll have to pair it with some green peas. And if you're really striving for 18th-century authenticity, enjoy the whole meal with some turtle soup, like John and Abigail Adams supposedly did on the first Fourth of July. (You can still be a patriot without the soup, though.)

4. MASSACHUSETTS WAS THE FIRST STATE TO RECOGNIZE THE HOLIDAY.

Massachusetts recognized the Fourth of July as an official holiday on July 3, 1781, making it the first state to do so. It wasn't until June 28, 1870 that Congress decided to start designating federal holidays [PDF], with the first four being New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This decreed that those days were holidays for federal employees.

However, there was a distinction. The Fourth was a holiday "within the District of Columbia" only. It would take years of new legislation to expand the holiday to all federal employees.

5. THE OLDEST ANNUAL FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION IS HELD IN BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND.

Eighty-five years before the Fourth of July was even recognized as a federal holiday, one tradition began that continues to this day. Billed as "America's Oldest Fourth of July Celebration," the town of Bristol, Rhode Island, has been doing Independence Day right since 1785.

The festivities began just two years after the Revolutionary War ended, and 2017 will be its 232nd entry. Over the years the whole thing has expanded well beyond July 4; the town of 23,000 residents now begins to celebrate the United States on Flag Day, June 14, all the way through to the 2.5-mile July 4 parade. What began as a "patriotic exercise"—meaning church services—has morphed into a cavalcade of parades, live music, food, and other activities.

6. AND THE SHORTEST PARADE IS IN APTOS, CALIFORNIA.

From the oldest to the shortest, the Fourth of July parade in Aptos, California, is just a hair over half a mile long. Taking up two city blocks, and measuring just .6 miles, this brief bit of patriotism features antique cars, decorated trucks, and plenty of walkers. Afterward, there's a Party in the Park, where folks can enjoy live music, food, and games.

7. THERE ARE AROUND 15,000 INDEPENDENCE DAY FIREWORKS CELEBRATIONS EVERY YEAR.

Fireworks burst over New York City.
JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, around 15,000 fireworks displays will take place for the Fourth of July holiday (even if some aren't exactly on July 4). Though pricing varies, most small towns spend anywhere from $8000-$15,000 for a fireworks display, with larger cities going into the millions, like the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular at around $2.5 million.

8. WE'LL EAT AN OBSCENE AMOUNT OF HOT DOGS.

Around 150 million, to be more specific—that's how many hot dogs will be consumed by Americans on the Fourth of July. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, that amount of dogs can stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times.

In 2016, 70 of those dogs were scarfed down by Joey Chestnut, who won the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition for the ninth time.

9. AND WE'LL SPEND BILLIONS ON FOOD.

Americans will spend big on food and drinks this Fourth. Big to the tune of around $7.1 billion when all is said and done, according to the National Retail Federation. This includes food and other cookout expenses, averaging out to about $73 per person participating in a barbecue, outdoor cookout or picnic.

Then comes the booze. The Beer Institute estimates that Americans will spend around $1 billion on beer for their Fourth celebrations, and more than $450 million on wine.

10. THREE PRESIDENTS HAVE DIED, AND ONE WAS BORN, ON THE FOURTH.

You probably know that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826—50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted. They're not the only presidents to have died on the Fourth, though; James Monroe—the nation’s fifth president—died just a few years later on July 4, 1831.

Though the holiday might seem like it has it out for former presidents, there was one future leader born on Independence Day. The country's 30th Commander-in-Chief, Calvin Coolidge, was born on July 4, 1872.

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These Digital Fireworks Displays Can Help You Celebrate July 4 Wherever You Live
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Every Fourth of July needs to be capped off with a dazzling fireworks display, but depending on where you live, getting to one isn’t always easy. Many states have strict laws around which fireworks you can and can’t use on your own, and if there’s no public show in your town, you may be totally out of luck.

If you’re still craving a show, though, AtmosFX’s digital fireworks displays may be your best bet. These digital, animated fireworks shows can be downloaded from the company’s site where you can then either display them on your TV or project them onto surfaces around your home or backyard. The video options available allow for some customization, so you can either stick with a generic fireworks display or choose some patriotic colors along with a "Happy Fourth of July" message.

The company’s various digital fireworks videos come in at a 1080p HD resolution with sound effects that can be adjusted and customized—which is the perfect alternative to those decibel-busting fireworks displays designed to frighten your beloved pets. Some videos are meant to be displayed on TVs and monitors, while others are for wall projections and window displays. You can buy these à la carte for $6.99 each, or together in a package for $20.

Whether you live in an apartment, a state that prohibits fireworks, or are expecting some wet weather for your Independence Day party, look into a digital alternative by heading to the AtmosFX website.

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