The First Arbor Day

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.

[Cherry blossoms, Washington, D.C]. Harris & Ewing, photographer, March 31, 1936. Harris & Ewing Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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 exercises for the school-room,” by Ellen Isabel Revell. Boston, New York [etc.]: Educational publishing company,[c1909].

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.

Plains Farms Need Trees.” Joseph Dusek, artist; Chicago: Illinois WPA Art Project, [between 1936 and 1940]. Posters: WPA Posters. Prints & Photographs Division
Spare Our Trees.” Stanley Thomas Clough, artist; Ohio: Federal Art Project, W.P.A., 1938. Posters: WPA Posters. Prints & Photographs Division

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