Today, February 7, 2017, is the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth. It is an important date for readers of the Little House series and for all of us at the Pioneer Girl Project, and it got me to thinking, how did we begin celebrating birthdays?
The true origin of the birthday celebration is lost to history, but we can say that the party started in Egypt, and the Greeks added the candles. However, these ancient celebrations were not like our modern birthdays; they were reserved for gods and goddesses only. It was not until the Romans came onto the scene that the common people began to commemorate their own births. In the eighteenth century, German bakers made cakes popular, and the industrial revolution brought dessert to the masses. Finally, in 1893, two women, Patty and Mildred Hill, created a tune that Robert Coleman would turn into “Happy Birthday to You” in 1924.1 The modern birthday basics were set.
So, where does a little girl on the American frontier fit into all of this? For starters, I find it interesting to note that Wilder’s childhood birthdays could not have included the fiddle rendition of “Happy Birthday” that I always imagined they did in my youth. In fact, in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Wilder’s birthday episodes are minimal. During the Ingalls family’s time in Wisconsin, Wilder remembered: “After awhile I had a birthday. I didn’t know anything about it until when I got up in the morning, Pa played spank me, . . . one for each year. Then he gave me a little wooden man he had whittled out of a stick. Ma and Mary gave me a rag doll that Ma had made and Mary helped dress. And I was a great girl 4 years old!” (p. 41).2
Not until Wilder moved to De Smet did she experience her first birthday party, given for a boy named Ben Woodworth, and in true introvert fashion, she “felt very awkward.” She did have a good time, though, recalling: “The long dining table was set and ready when we got there. It was beautiful with its silver and china its beautiful linen tablecloth and napkins. At each place, on a pretty little plate was an orange standing on end with the peel sliced in strips half way down and curled back making the orange look like a golden flower. I thought them the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, even prittier than the birthday cake in the center of the table” (p. 251). Oranges were a luxury on the frontier, as was the oyster soup that the Woodworths served along with a “generous piece” of cake. Afterwards, the young people played games. “We went home early well pleased with the evening” (p. 252), Wilder remembered.
Generally, Wilder’s youth occurred before birthday celebrations became popular in the United States. As time went on, annual birthday parties became a normal part of people’s lives. Wilder even dressed up to commemorate her eighty-fourth birthday at the library in Mansfield, Missouri, in 1951.
So, today, let’s wish a fine and modern happy birthday to Laura Ingalls Wilder from all of those whose lives she touched.
1. Todd Van Lulling, “This Is Why You Get To Celebrate Your Birthday Every Year,” huffingtonpost.com.
2. Wilder was actually five at the time.