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Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, Carol Highsmith, ca. 1980 – 2006. Highsmith Archive, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

Memorial Day Past and Present: Commemorating with Collections

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In a few days, we’ll be commemorating Memorial Day. For many of us, this means the end of school, the start of summer, neighborhood barbecues, and the opening of pools. Growing up, my school always went till mid-June, and I didn’t have a neighborhood pool. But I do remember the local parades held by my small town in Connecticut. Firetrucks rolled down the streets, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops marched by, and the agricultural fair princesses and queens waved from borrowed cars. We dressed up in red, white, and blue and waved mini American flags. It wasn’t until I was older that I understood the significance of the date.

A wreath decorates a stone memorial.
A small Vietnam War Memorial, Memorial Day, Springfield Massachusetts. Carol Highsmith, 2019. (Highsmith Archive, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

Historians continue to research the origins of Memorial Day, which drew inspiration from local observances during and after the Civil War. Women, especially in the South, began decorating the graves of soldiers before the war was over, and many communities held informal ceremonies both large and small. Fairly quickly, these coalesced into more formal commemorations across the country. By 1866 graves were being decorated from Columbus, Mississippi to Waterloo, New York. A few years later, in 1868, General John A. Logan called for May 30th to be designated as the official day for decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. Logan was the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Civil War veterans. His directive and the ceremonies that resulted from it are generally recognized as the start of Memorial Day as a national, rather than local, holiday. Originally called “Decoration Day,” the holiday continued to gain momentum even as the ways it was celebrated changed. As the name Memorial Day became more commonly used, the scope of the holiday expanded to include all Americans who died while in U.S. military service, rather than only Civil War soldiers. In 1971, Congress designated Memorial Day as a national holiday celebrated on the last Monday in May.

Memorial Day was and still is marked in several ways, including decoration of graves, ceremonies and addresses, and parades. Keep reading to dig deeper into these activities through Library of Congress collection materials.

Decorating Graves

Decorating graves was the main activity of Decoration Day, and continues to be a way to observe Memorial Day. Initially largely the work of women’s organizations, this activity spread to other groups. Students were especially involved in collecting and contributing flowers. One New York City newspaper listed the donations from local schools in 1872:

Grammar School No. 45, female ward, sent 800 pots of flowers; … Primary School No. 1, Ludlow street, was marched to the headquarters by its teacher, Miss Carrie Carll, the children bearing 101 pots; …and there were contributions from Grammar Schools No. 41, 38, 24, 13, 50, 32, 26, 22, 20, and 35…

Take a look at the photo below, captured by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a photographer from Washington D.C. What do you notice about the flowers? Where do you think the students might have brought them after the photograph was taken?

A group of students display a large number of cut daisies in front of a blackboard.
Daisies gathered for Decoration Day, May 30, 1899. Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899. (Johnston [Frances Benjamin] Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).
This type of decoration continued over the decades. Compare these two photos, taken in 1943 and 1996. What is similar? What is different? Do people in your hometown decorate veterans’ graves for Memorial Day?

Ceremonies & Addresses

Since the start of the holiday, ceremonies and speeches have been used to mark Memorial Day. There have been annual addresses at Arlington National Cemetery since 1868. As is the case today, ceremonies at Arlington took place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and in the Memorial Amphitheater. Before the current amphitheater was completed in 1920, observances were held at a number of temporary locations on the site. Memorial Day ceremonies weren’t confined to cemeteries however; they could take place anywhere people could gather, including on baseball fields and near former battlefields.

Ceremonies often included musical performances and the recitation of poetry and speeches. Books provided information on suitable songs, readings, and speeches for Memorial Day programs, especially those for children and in schools. Communities could also find instructions for pageants for Memorial Day performances. Many such scripts had strict instructions for production, such as the one pictured below. This pageant script suggested that directors should make sure that “leading figures are adults or very tall young people. Such figures as AMERICA, THE STATE, NORTH, SOUTH, etc., etc., cannot be played by small-sized children. It will ruin the effect of the pageant.”

A page from a book.
Memorial Day pageant, arranged for communities and schools. Constance D’Arcy Mackay, c 1916. (Selected Digitized Books, General Collections, Library of Congress).


From the start of the holiday’s observance, many ceremonies included parades. Memorial Day parades in the 20th century had similar participants to the ones we might see today. Many included Scout troops and voluntary organizations alongside bands and floats. Take a look at the photos below. What do you notice? Do these events look like parades you have attended?

A group of Girl Scouts carry flags down a street.
Ashland, Aroostook County, Maine. Girl scouts marching…during Memorial Day Ceremonies. John Collier Jr., 1943. (FSA/OWI Black-And-White Negatives, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).
An old-fashioned truck carries many young children in white costumes.
Junior Red Cross float in the Roosevelt Memorial Day Parade. Ca. 1921. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).
A line of men playing musical instruments
Gloucester, Massachusetts. Memorial Day, 1943. American Legion Band playing at the Memorial Service. Gordon Parks, 1943. (FSA/OWI Black-And-White Negatives, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

Fittingly, many Memorial Day parades also include veterans and members of the military. Compare these two photos, taken in New York City in 1917 and Washington D.C. in 1942. What do you notice about the different uniforms, settings, and spectators?

How do you celebrate Memorial Day with your family and friends? Are there parades or ceremonies in your community? Will you listen to a speech or hold a moment of silence?

In 1870, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, General James B. McKean spoke at a Memorial Day ceremony in New York City. He concluded with the words:

“We are told by those who can see and hear more than others can, that flowers have language, and that the stars make music…Bring then the flowers with the sweetest breath and the most cheerful voices…we, comrades, will join our less musical, but not discordant, voices with theirs, in ‘Fraternity, Charity, and Loyalty.’”

McKean was quoting the motto of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization whose leader prompted a national Memorial Day holiday. However you celebrate Memorial Day, I encourage you to think of your own motto or phrase to use in commemoration. What do you think is important to remember or share on this holiday? Use your own experience or dig into the Library’s collections and the resources shared here for inspiration. You can share your phrase with your family and friends, or comment on this blog post to join in the conversation!

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