Tuesday, March 24, 2009

March 27: Song Writing Kindergarten Teacher

Do you know who this is?
-She was on the ground floor of the kindergarten movement in the US
-She wrote the lyrics to Good Morning to You.
-She won a lawsuit – and donated the money to educating young people.

Patty Smith Hill was born in Anchorage, Kentucky, on March 27, 1868. Her parents were Reverend William Wallace Hill and Martha Jane Smith Hill, and Patty was one of six children. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and a founder of Bellewood Female Seminary. Her father regularly worked with colleges, and her mother was college educated – a rarity for the era. Her mother believed that children should have fun at every possible opportunity, and she established extensive play areas at their home where the children spent hours playing freely and building with bricks, barrels, and boards. Patty would be enrolled in the Seminary until the family moved to Missouri.

The family moved to Fulton, Missouri when Patty was six, and when her father died four years later in 1878 the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky. She attended public schools before attending the Louisville Collegiate Institute in 1882. Patty would become interested in primary age children, and took training to become an educator, becoming a part of the kindergarten movement that was sweeping the country from the late 19th century through the early 20th century. She would become one of the first five to graduate from the first kindergarten training school in Louisville, which was under the leadership of Anne E. Bryan. The Institute would expose Patty to the newest theories of education, which she would absorb, mold, alter, and use.

In 1887 the Free Kindergarten Association was established by a group of prominent Louisville women. Within a decade the Association had ten kindergartens established –under the guidance and direction of Patty Hill. Patty would encourage her young charges to engage in individual and group creative play, and she used music, plays, poetry, and stories as an integral art of her curriculum.” She also devised an exhibition for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, which was designed to inform the public of the merits of a kindergarten program.

Her ideas were controversial at the time, but gradually interest grew in them from educators around the world. She would be invited by Dr. James Russell – Dean of the Teacher’s College - in 1905 to present a series of lectures at the Teacher’s College, Columbia University. She convinced Russell of the need for a demonstration kindergarten, and was asked to return for a semester to teach at Columbia. She began the Speyer School of Experimental Playroom, and when her semester was over, she was invited – and accepted – the job of permanent faculty member.

She traveled in educational circles visited by John Dewey, Edward Thorndyke, and William H. Kilpatrick. At the Teachers College Patty would grow and expand mentally and professionally. She would invent Patty Hill blocks, which were the sets of large blocks - some of which were nearly the size of small children. The blocks allowed their young builders to create magnificent structures that they could people with their classmates and their imaginations. She became the head of the Department of Nursery School, Kindergarten, and First Grade Education in 1910 – a post she held for thirty years – and in 1921 received an additional position as Director of the Institute for Child Welfare Research (which was later known as the Institute for Child Development) with its demonstration nursery school. She was granted a full professorship in 1922.

In 1929, she was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree from Columbia University in recognition of her work in early education. She retired in 1936 – but her portrait hangs in the halls of Columbia’s Teachers College. During her career she authored a number of books concerning education for young children – many of which are still available on Amazon.

Patty also was a founding member of two major childhood education organizations. In 1892 she helped to create the International Kindergarten Union (now known as the Association for Childhood Education International), and was a founder of the National Association of Nursery Educators (now known as the National Association for the Education of Young Children) in 1926.

Throughout her retirement years, Hill continued her involvement at Teachers College through guest seminars and interests in international affairs. She labored for the education of young children for the remainder of her life.

Despite all of her accomplishments as an innovative educator, Patty is probably best known to the general public as the co-author of the Happy Birthday song.

In 1893, Patty and her sister Mildred published Song Stories for Sunday School, which included a song they had written the lyrics and tune to: “Good Morning to You”. Originally meant as a greeting song for children entering the classroom, the tune was amended and changed in 1924 to the well-known and often sung “Happy Birthday to You”.

Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.

In 1935 Jessica Hill – who managed the copyright of songs for her sisters - attended an Irving Berlin Broadway play in which “Happy Birthday” was sung, and finding that the Hill sisters had not been credited for the song, nor had been asked for permission to use their copyrighted song, Jessica Hill (representing her sisters) sued the As Thousands Cheer producer Sam Harris, for $250 every time the song was sung. They won the lawsuit against Harris – and used the money to establish nursery schools and kindergartens for low income children in New York City housing projects. Patty arranged for the ACEI to receive future monies generated by the song, dedicating it to the education of young children. Patty would pass away on May 25, 1946, in New York City, and was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky. Patty and her sister Mildred were posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 12, 1996. Happy Birthday to You will remain in copyright for public performances until 2030.

There are no books available on Patty Hill in our local library.


Encyclopedia of Louisville
Historical Dictionary of Women’s Education in America
New World Encyclopedia
Time Magazine, 1938


1. Portrait: Encyclopedia of Louisville
2. Gravestone: Find A Grave site, Tom Secoy


  1. I had always heard that about the "happy birthday" song, being why on television there is always some other variation used but never knew the story. Thank you for the informative post. I never did attend kindergarden, maybe why I was always a little behind in school.

  2. Ah, yes. Kindergarten and Miss Frisby - nicest teacher I ever had. I could joke and say that I had her three years in a row in kindergarten, but I wont....
    Now we have pre-K and nursery in many of our schools... I could get my conservative dander up and rant for awhile, but I wont do that either.
    Thanks for the comments.