Looking Back: Celebrating a birthday in 1935

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published September 14, 2017


Children’s birthday parties weren’t always about cake, pizza, sugary drinks, and high-energy fun and games.

During the Victorian era, birthday parties were balls thrown by the rich to show off their affluence and to teach children etiquette lessons — which hardly sounds like something any 6-year-old would look forward to.

Thankfully, change was coming. By 1900, children’s birthday parties began to be more focused on the birthday boy or girl, with psychologists encouraging parents to let their children develop a sense of responsibility by coming up with their own guest list. In the 1920s, going to the movie theater with friends was a popular party activity, and by the 1950s, most people had come to see birthday parties as a right.

This photo, from the Birmingham Museum collection, shows guests at the fifth birthday party of Helen “Polly” Stanley, far right, in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression.

While exact details of what happened during Polly’s party are lost, there are some historical clues. By the early 1930s, the song “Happy Birthday to You” had become widely known, as it appeared in numerous musicals and cartoons, so it’s likely that Polly’s guests sang it in her honor. Inventive cake recipes made it possible to bake a delicious chocolate cake without expensive ingredients like eggs and butter, and party games people still play today — like pin the tail on the donkey and musical chairs — were in vogue then, and popular board games like Monopoly, Scrabble, Chinese checkers and Sorry! had been recently released. Gifts and favors were small and inexpensive.

— Caitlin Donnelly, museum assistant at the Birmingham Museum