The song “Happy Birthday to you” has become an iconic masterpiece, ranked by the Guinness Book of Records as the most recognized song in the English language and translated into at least twenty languages. However, at its birth, the song was not sung at birthday parties and the authors of the original song were not recognized.
Who were the Hill sisters?
The happy birthday song “Happy birthday to you” was composed by the sisters Mildred Hill (1859-1916) and Patty Hill (1868-1946) who both worked as nannies and kindergarten teachers.
Patty Hill was also the inventor of the ‘Patti Hill blocks’ widely used in kindergartens across the United States of America. She later went on to lecture at Columbia University’s School of Education a job she held for almost 30 years and was one of the founders of the National Preschool Education Association, which was later renamed as the National Association for Children Education (NAEYC).
Mildred’s passions lay heavily within the world of music, a passion she fostered from an early age. She later went on to become an educator and an expert in Negro spirituality. In her later life, she worked primarily as a composer and pianist.
The history of the song
In 1893, Mildred taught at Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School, where her younger sister, Patty, held the role of the headteacher. She came up with the tune of the song ‘Good Morning to All’, which students would sing when welcoming their teachers, and Patty wrote the lyrics.
The song ‘Good morning to all’ was listed in the book ‘Song Stories for the Kindergarten’ that the sisters co-wrote and published in 1893. Students often sang the song to welcome their teachers and gradually the song ‘Good Morning to All’ became known as ‘Good Morning To You’.
The song was first published in a music collection in 1922
Later, many radio stations and films began to use the song ‘Good Morning to All’ as a happy birthday song, and the lyrics “Good morning to you” were changed to “Happy birthday to you”. Broadway musical plays such as The Band Wagon (1931) and the musical As Thousands Cheer by musician Irving Berlin also featured the song.
As the Mildred and Patty Hill sisters never got paid for the copyright use of the song, another of their sisters, filed a complaint to claim copyright for the song ‘Happy Birthday to you’ which they believed was originally ‘Good Morning to You’.
The federal court acknowledged the claim and confirmed the rights of the song to belong to Mildred and Patty in 1935. Under the copyright laws of the time, the Hill sisters would be entitled to 28 years of royalties, and after that time, in the year of 1991, the song would be listed in the public domain.
The Copyright Act in 1976 extended the duration of copyright by 75 years from the date of publication, and the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act extended the term by another 20 years. Meaning that the Hill’s sisters would remain in the copyright of the song until 2030.
However, Warner Chappell, the world’s largest music production company, bought the rights to the song “Happy Birthday To You” in 1998 for $25 million. A part of the royalties have been put into the Hill Foundation.
The sisters Mildred Hill and Patty Hill both remained unmarried and neither had children, so after both of them died, the large royalties payout transferred ownership to their nephew Archibald Hill who has donated a vast amount of the money to charitable causes.