The Forgotten Sisters Behind ‘Happy Birthday to You’

Mildred and Patty Hill wrote the popular song’s melody, but their contributions to American culture have long been overlooked

GIF illustration of Mildred and Patty Hill, wearing birthday hats in front of a copy of their composition
“Happy Birthday” may be the Hill sisters' main claim to fame, but Patty (left) and Mildred's (right) impact on American history extends far beyond the beloved song. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Images via Wikimedia Commons, University of Louisville, Western Kentucky University and Freepik

For the past century, people of all ages have sung a four-line jingle to mark their loved ones’ birthdays. But few know the names of the siblings behind this ubiquitous tune: Mildred Jane Hill, a renowned musician and songwriter, and Patty Smith Hill, a pioneer in early childhood education.

The surprisingly tangled history of “Happy Birthday to You”—described by Guinness World Records as the most frequently sung English-language song—begins in 1893, when the Hill sisters co-wrote and published a tune called “Good Morning to All.” Their goal, Patty later recalled, was to craft songs that expressed “those words and emotions and ideas fitted to the limited musical ability of a young child.”

Patty tested out the song, set to the same melody as “Happy Birthday,” on her kindergarten students in Louisville, Kentucky. The lyrics went like this: “Good morning to you / Good morning to you / Good morning, dear children / Good morning to all.”

Mildred and Patty Hill
Mildred (left) and Patty (right) Hill Courtesy of the Happy Birthday Circle

How and when did these lines morph into “Happy Birthday”? Theories abound, but an element of the unknown persists. In Louisville, locals often trace the shift to the Little Loomhouse, a cabin that now houses a nonprofit fiber arts organization.

“The story goes that one or both of the sisters were at a birthday party at the summer cabin, and that’s where the lyrics were changed,” says Mick Sullivan, a curator at Louisville’s Frazier History Museum, which features a panel on the Hill sisters in its “Cool Kentucky” exhibition. “One of the points of the song was that you could just change it. Instead of ‘Good Morning to All,’ if it was Friday, they might say, ‘Good Friday to You.’”

Sullivan adds, “Children change lyrics all the time.” Consider, for instance, a popular parody of the birthday song: “Happy Birthday to you / You live in a zoo / You look like a monkey, / and you smell like one, too!”

The Hill sisters’ lives

“Happy Birthday” may be the Hill sisters’ main claim to fame, but their impact on American history extends far beyond the beloved song. Patty is the reason people now attend kindergarten, Sullivan says. She introduced the progressive philosophy of early childhood teaching, which stresses the importance of children’s creativity and focuses on social and emotional well-being in addition to academic learning.

“Patty was on the forefront—the loudest voice in the United States for adopted kindergarten,” Sullivan says. She was “convincing the public and the powers that be that kindergarten was not just worthwhile but absolutely necessary.”

A 1922 photograph of Patty
A 1922 photograph of Patty University of Louisville

Born in 1859 and 1868, respectively, Mildred and Patty were two of six children of the Reverend William Wallace Hill, a Presbyterian minister who edited a religious journal and served as a pastor at Anchorage Presbyterian Church outside of Louisville. Progressive for his day, William was adamant that his daughters receive a full education, which was not typical for women at the time. He started a school for girls called the Bellewood Female Seminary, teaching his students evolution, geology and astronomy.

“He was an intellectual and believed that women should not be dependent on a man for a home—that they should make their own livelihood,” says Elizabeth Campbell Rightmyer, a former president of the Happy Birthday Circle, a Louisville nonprofit that seeks to preserve the sisters’ legacy. (Neither Mildred nor Patty married or had children.)

According to a 2010 paper by Robert Brauneis, an intellectual property law expert at George Washington University, Mildred and Patty started collaborating on children’s songs in 1889, eventually compiling their compositions in a book titled Song Stories for the Kindergarten. In 1893, the same year the sisters published “Good Morning to All,” they presented their educational work at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Mildred was a musical prodigy and internationally known pianist. She also acted as a historian of Louisville’s music scene. From her studio, Mildred, who was white, heard Black vendors singing “street cries” in a blues scale, leading her to predict that blues and jazz would become all-American genres of music. She collected examples of the unique cries and pushed for the music’s preservation.

A Louisville house where the Hill sisters lived in their youth
A Louisville house where the Hill sisters lived in their youth Courtesy of the Happy Birthday Circle

“If a history of music in Kentucky were being written, a large portion should be devoted to the music of the Negro in our state,” Mildred wrote in a late 19th-century essay. “The old Negroes, who alone know this music, are fast dying out, and it is sad that some effort is not made to secure it before it is too late.”

Patty, meanwhile, was one of the most important education reformers in the United States, serving as the first president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and a professor at Columbia University. She designed and marketed teaching tools called Patty Hill blocks, which kindergarteners used to build large play structures.

“What are you going to accomplish academically as a kindergartner?” Sullivan asks. The progressive philosophy “was about being with other kids and sharing that experience, [learning] cooperation and things that required multiple hands to do. That [approach] was really ahead of its time when you think about it.”

Patty’s New York Times obituary offers insights on her teaching philosophy, quoting her at length:

We not only stood for children’s ability to learn to depend upon themselves in creating their own forms of expression, but we emphasized the tremendous importance of firsthand contacts with nature, through excursions to parks, the zoo, the river, the railroad station. We insisted that creative expression must grow out of experience in real-life situations, and that prescribed adult forms preceding these firsthand experiences were blind, unintelligent and empty.

Mildred died in 1916 at age 56, long before her birthday composition’s meteoric rise to fame. Patty died in 1946 at age 78. The Hill sisters are buried near each other at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.

The Story Behind the Happy Birthday Song

The copyright battle over “Happy Birthday to You”

In the 1920s, variations of “Happy Birthday,” set to the tune of “Good Morning to All,” appeared in several songbooks, including a 1924 one edited by Robert H. Coleman. As the song gained traction, even appearing in movies and a Broadway musical, Mildred and Patty’s youngest sister, Jessica Mateer Hill, decided to push back against unregulated use of the tune. In 1935, Jessica authorized the Clayton F. Summy Company, which had published the original Song Stories for the Kindergarten, to release a new copyrighted arrangement of “Happy Birthday.”

Decades of copyright disputes and lawsuits followed, with Warner Chappell Music—the music publisher that inherited the claim—fighting to retain the rights to the lucrative song. In 2016, a judge approved a settlement that officially put “Happy Birthday” in the public domain.

Patty's grave at Cave Hill Cemetery Michael Higgs
Mildred's grave at Cave Hill Cemetery Michael Higgs

Lingering questions over how “Good Morning to All” evolved into “Happy Birthday” may have played a role in the lack of recognition afforded to Mildred and Patty. But “there’s absolutely no doubt that [the Hill sisters] wrote ‘Good Morning to All,’ and they wrote the melody we all know as ‘Happy Birthday to You,’” Brauneis tells Smithsonian magazine. “We just don’t know who first sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to that tune. We don’t know whose birthday it was and who chose to sing that.”

He adds, “Some people probably think [‘Happy Birthday’ is] a folk song that has been around forever. That’s not true. [Mildred and Patty] composed it, and they deserved credit for it.”

Preserving the Hill sisters’ legacy

In Louisville, the Happy Birthday Circle has raised $100,000 of the $8.7 million needed to build a public tribute to the Hill sisters at Waterfront Park. The project’s target groundbreaking date is 2026. The planned site—also called the Happy Birthday Circle—would feature a pavilion, a memorial and a picnic grove. It would be located under the Big Four Bridge pedestrian walkway, which connects Louisville to Jeffersonville, Indiana.

More than one million people cross the bridge annually, making it “a really great place to memorialize the Hill sisters, who have never been claimed by Louisville as the authors of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song,” says Rightmyer, who currently chairs the Happy Birthday Circle’s capital campaign. “We ask people in Louisville, ‘Do you know who wrote the “Happy Birthday” song?’ Maybe nine out of ten of them don’t. It’s the most sung song in the world.”

Rightmyer adds, “We’ve been trying to celebrate Louisville’s Hill sisters since [2012] and have been though a number of changes, and we have morphed. The stars are aligned now, … and we have this location.”

An artist's rendering of the planned tribute to the Hill sisters in Louisville, Kentucky
An artist's rendering of the planned tribute to the Hill sisters in Louisville, Kentucky Happy Birthday Circle

The Happy Birthday Circle would include an engraving of a photo of the Hill sisters from around the time they wrote the song. Patty and Mildred deserve great praise and recognition, Rightmyer says. They were “amazing women. They had a great career, but what they did was really far beyond that.”

“In some ways, it’s unfortunate that their legacy is [simply] that they wrote this little song,” Brauneis says. “But I think when you tie it back to the whole free kindergarten movement they were involved with, [the goal was] inspiring children to be active.”

The scholar adds, “They really thought practically, [saying,] ‘Hey, if we want children to become more participatory, we have to actually think about composing songs that they can learn and sing.’ Their legacy is still a song that we learn and sing most often in our childhoods.”

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