From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

The following is a guest post by Jan Grenci, Reference Specialist, Prints and Photographs Division

Memorial Day is now observed on the last Monday in May to honor all those who have died in service while defending the United States. But the name, meaning and timing of this special day have changed over the years. Images reflect both the changes and the continuities.

The precise origins of Decoration Day, as it was first known, are hard to pin down. A number of cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of the holiday. One fact not in dispute is that in 1868 General John A. Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that Decoration Day be observed on May 30th. Civil War soldiers’ graves were to be decorated with flowers on this day.

In this early poster from the Prints and Photographs Division, from the 1890’s, artist Charles Cox pairs cyclists competing in a Decoration Day race with marching soldiers and veterans.

Bearing's Decoration Day Cycle Races. Poster by Charles A. Cox, 1890s. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03037

Bearing’s Decoration Day Cycle Races. Poster by Charles A. Cox, 1890s. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03037

Over time, the holiday changed. By the late 19th century, the day was more commonly referred to as Memorial Day. As the United States became involved in World War I, the day evolved to honor the dead of all American wars.

This poster from 1917 shows the name change and honors the memory of the dead from the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War.

Honor the brave Memorial Day, May 30, 1917. Poster, 1917. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g08122

Honor the Brave Memorial Day, May 30, 1917. Poster, 1917. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g08122

Memorial Day observations have come to include parades, speeches, and services at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

President Coolidge pays homage to Unknown Soldier... Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1927 May 30. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.34487

President Coolidge pays homage to Unknown Soldier… Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1927 May 30. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.34487

But the long-standing tradition of decorating the graves of the fallen with flowers and flags continues to this day.

Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia... Photo by Esther Bubley, 1943 May. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c31718

Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia… Photo by Esther Bubley, 1943 May. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c31718

Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.12645

Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.12645

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