In the early 1890s, Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Jane Hill worked at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School in Louisville, Kentucky. Mildred was a teacher, concert pianist, and played organ in their church. Patty was the principal of the school. With Patty at the helm, the school experimented with new ways to teach younger children and to better prepare them for elementary school. Just one of the many experiments the school performed was the use of songs as teaching tools. Mildred and Patty began working on an upbeat song to welcome the children to school and to get them in the mindset to learn. Within a short time, Mildred came up with a simple melody she was happy with. Patty composed simple, repetitive lyrics that the children could learn quickly. On October 16, 1893, Mildred and Patty copyrighted their composition entitled “Good Morning to All.” Later that year, Mildred and Patty’s song was included in a songbook Story Songs for Kindergarten with the permission of the Hill sisters. Each morning, kindergarten students at Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School began their day with “Good Morning to All.”
Within a short time, the simple song became popular with children as young as a year-and-a-half. People soon began singing their own lyrics to the popular medley. On March 4, 1924, Robert H. Coleman edited the lyrics to the song and published it in a song book without the permission of the Hill sisters. It remains unclear whether Robert Coleman realized the song had been copyrighted.
On September 30, 1933, the musical comedy called “As Thousands Cheer,” produced by Sam Harris, opened on Broadway. One of the musical numbers in the play was “Good Morning to All,” but with the altered lyrics. The play was a huge success, but Jessica Hill, sister of Mildred and Patty, was angered and claimed that her sisters’ song had been plagiarized. In August of 1934, Jessica filed a plagiarism suit on behalf of her sisters against producer Sam Harris. In the suit, Jessica claimed that her sister Patty and late sister Mildred copyrighted the song in 1893, that the copyright was extended in 1921, and that she owned the rights to the song. For the infringement, Jessica asked for $250 for each of the 403 performances of “As Thousands Cheer,” for a total of $100,750. Patty, who would share in the damages, had all but resigned herself to the fact that the song “had become common property of the nation.” The court decided that Jessica and Patty owned the copyright of the melody for “Good Morning to All,” along with all versions of the melody with altered lyrics. For Sam Harris to continue to use the song in “As Thousands Cheer,” he would have had to pay $250 per performance. Unsurprisingly, Sam dropped the song from the musical. The song was so popular that some companies agreed to pay to use the song. For example, Fox Film Corporation paid $250 and used the song in the 1934 Shirley Temple film, Baby, Take a Bow.
Royalties from “Good Morning to All” and all of its variations now amount to an estimated $2-$4 million per year. You probably have never heard of Mildred, Patty, or Jessica Hill, but their song is regarded as the most frequently sung tune in the world. The song is always sung to honor someone else and not the singer. You and I know Mildred and Patty Hill’s song “Good Morning to All” as “Happy Birthday to You.”
1. Daily News, August 15, 1934, p.391.
2. The Belleville News-Democrat, August 27, 1934, p.4.
3. Green Bay Press-Gazette, September 24, 2004, p.75.