The first official Arbor Day took place on April 10th, 1872. It is estimated that on this inaugural Arbor Day, Nebraskans celebrated by planting more than one million trees. The occasion fulfilled the dream of J. Sterling Morton, a newspaper editor and former governor of the Nebraska Territory. Morton, an ardent proponent of forestation, lobbied for a holiday to encourage the planting of trees. According to the National Arbor Day Foundation, counties and individuals that planted the most trees were awarded prizes.
In 1885, thirteen years after Arbor Day was first celebrated, Nebraskans changed the date to April 22nd in honor of Morton’s birthday. Arbor Day is now officially celebrated worldwide, usually on the last Friday in April.
By 1907, Arbor Day was observed in every state in the Union, principally through school programs. Through these celebrations, schoolchildren were urged to consider the planting of a tree as a patriotic, even pious, act, as well as a sound investment and a contribution to community aesthetics. See an example of school programming for Arbor Day below:
Arbor Day Leaves, published in 1893 and featured in The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, provides a brief history of Arbor Day, an overview of Arbor Day observances, and a sample Arbor Day program typical of those performed in schools throughout the country.
- Search on tree, elm, oak, willow, birch, palm, pine, maple and other names of trees in Detroit Publishing Company and Library of Congress Digital Collections to see more pictures of trees in America.
- Search using the keyword forest in American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936: Images from the University of Chicago Library External to find more than five hundred photographs of early-twentieth-century American trees and forests.
- To learn about other important events in the movement to conserve and protect America’s natural heritage, see the chronology in The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
- Also, don’t miss the Today in History features on Bird Day, May 4, and Earth Day, April 22.