Menu Close

Patty Smith Hill and “Happy Birthday to You”

Author John Cech
Air Date 3/27/2001

Patty Smith Hill and “Happy Birthday to You” Transcript

We all know the song, and probably can’t remember when we first learned to it’s words. You’ll probably sing it a dozen times this year, at least, over cakes and cupcakes — in dining rooms and kitchens, schools and restaurants, over office partitions and back-yard picnics. It’s sung off-key and with wobbly harmonies, it’s sung with blazing candles and cheers, and it always ends with a wish.

We know the song, “Happy Birthday to You,” but most of us don’t know that it was written by an actual person, Patty Smith Hill, an educator who was born on March 27th, 1868, in Anchorage Kentucky. Professor Smith began her distinguished professional career in education as a kindergarten teacher in Louisville, Kentucky. It was there that she wrote the words, in 1893, for a song that was meant as a welcome to start the school day. It was originally called “Good Morning to All,” and her sister, Mildred, who was also a kindergarten teacher and an accomplished musician, provided the melody.

Patty Smith Hill went on from the classroom to become a centeral and energizing figure in the Kindergarten and nursery school movements that swept this country in the latter part of the 19th century and in the first decades of the 20th. She was deeply concerned with nurturing a child’s creativity and natural instincts, and she sought, as a teacher and as a teacher of teachers, to find innovative ways for children to express these innate capacities. One of her inventions were the sets of large blocks, called “Patty Hill blocks, ” some of which were nearly the size of small children. They allowed their young builders to create magnificent structures that they could people with their classmates and their imaginations.

In her long life, Professor Smith became a highly respected author and an indefatigable public advocate of and authority on progressive education. She and her work have had a lasting effect on how young children are taught in this country; and that, of course, would be more enough. But to have also written the words for what has become one of the best known songs in English — Now that’s the icing on the cake!

Posted in Music