The History of Happy Birthday

Welcome to the first post of the Sing Happy Birthday Blog! Let’s jump right in and look at the history of Happy Birthday.

Not content with offering you countless bespoke versions of this beloved song, we are also delving into all those questions you were too afraid to ask about birthdays.. and some you haven’t even thought of.

And to begin with the obvious one – where did this song come from?

Good Morning To All

Happy Birthday To You began life as..

‘Good Morning to All,

Good Morning to All,

Good Morning, Good Morning

Good Morning to all!’

Good Morning To All - The history of Happy Birthday Song - Mildred Hill

 and was written by the Hill sisters in America in 1893. Patty Smith Hill wrote the words, and her sister Mildred the music when teaching at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School.

It was part of a collection of ‘Song Stories for the Kindergarten’ which had over 20 editions. The words were translated into French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Swedish.

The Hill Sisters - Patty Smith Hill - Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School

The Hill Sisters

It would be easy to dismiss the Hill sisters as amiable amateurs – Victorian spinsters writing little tunes for the kiddies. Nothing could be more wrong. They were both formidable and successful women, brought up by a father who believed in educating women for professional life. 

Patty Smith Hill

Patty Smith Hill was a composer and teacher born in 1868 in Kentucky; she died in New York in 1946.

She was enormously influential in developing kindergartens which had creativity, energy and fun at their centre, but which were based firmly upon the idea that the years from 4-6 were a vital part of a child’s development and teaching. She encouraged the links between home and school to remain strong, that children should be encouraged to love life and follow their own interests, and that particular support should be given to less privileged areas, believing that all children had an equal potential to learn, and that early learning was a basic tool in overcoming the hurdles of poverty and distress. She was a pioneer, who had a great deal to do with the way children over the world – including yours – are taught today.

Her ideas, based upon the philosophy of Dewey and Froebel, were and still are central to the development of early years’ teaching throughout America; she was the first President of the National Association for Nursery Education, which is still the largest and most influential organization for early care and education professionals in the US.

It is one of the ironies of history that she may well be more famous for writing the original words for ‘Happy Birthday” – which of course were actually not the words used at all.. than altering the whole course of early years teaching for millions of children.

Patty Smith Hill - Portrait
Mildred Smith - The history of Happy Birthday

Mildred Smith

Mildred Smith wrote the music for ‘Happy Birthday to You’

She moved into music, teaching, composing, performing, and writing about music, specializing in the study of  Negro spirituals, using the pen name Johann Tonsor.  Her 1892 article “Negro Music”, suggesting that the existing body of black music would be the basis of a distinctive American musical style, influenced Dvořák in composing the New World Symphony.

The two sisters were honoured at the Chicago World’s Fair (1893) for their work, and were posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 12, 1996.

The origin of Happy Birthday's lyrics

The origin of the deathless verses

‘Happy Birthday to you!

Happy Birthday to you!

Happy Birthday, dear …

Happy Birthday to you!’

seems to be a poem written by another literary woman, Edith Goodyear Alger in 1893.

Ironically, we don’t have Edith, Mildred or Patty in our collection of over 800 names. Every Sing Me Happy Birthday song, in each of our 16 styles of music, is sung with 800+ names!

“Happy Birthday to You” in the complete form we know first appeared in print as the final four lines of Edith Goodyear Alger’s poem  “Roy‘s Birthday”, published in  A Primer of Work and Play, copyrighted by D. C. Heath in 1901. It is not the most inspiring children’s poem I have ever read, but here it is:

Roy's Birthday - A Primer of Work and Play

The first time the combination of lyrics and music we know today was published was in 1912, in ‘Beginner’s Book of Songs with Instructions’, and in 1915 it appeared in ‘The Golden Book of Favorite Songs’

The Golden Book of Favourite Songs - Happy Birthday words and music

After many disputes as to who owned the copyright of this song – sharpened by the fact that it was worth 14 million dollars by the time Warner Chappell settled in 2016, it was declared in the common domain – much to the relief of countless millions who had been singing and playing it illegally for years.

Marilyn Monroe

Perhaps its most famous performance is Marilyn Monroe’s crooning of it to President John F Kennedy in 1962. If you haven’t heard it, google it – it will expand your mind as to the possibilities of a happy birthday for ever.

Marilyn Monroe Happy Birthday Mr President

The history of Happy Birthday

Thank you for joining us on this maiden voyage. An exploration into the history of Happy Birthday. We’ll sign off with Happy Birthday Mr President… Trad Jazz style.

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