A vintage Washington's Birthday postcard from the collection of Russell Hughes of Orlando, Florida.
In 2003, I drafted a book about American holidays and their history. Though it wasn't published, the following is from the February chapter:
Most of our founding fathers, George Washington included, were born under the Julian calendar, but died under the Gregorian: so the days of their birth shifted in the middle of their lives.
George Washington's original birth year was 1731.
The Julian calendar was established by Julius Caesar, 46 years before the birth of Christ, and for more than fifteen centuries it was the standard calendar used in the West: and by some countries in the East as well. Caesar established a year that was 364 1/4 days long, designed to synchronized with a complete cycle of the Earth's seasons.
But his year was eleven minutes, fourteen seconds too slow, which didn't mean much at first. But by the sixteenth century, the date that marked the New Year--which was then the first day of spring--was ten days behind the vernal equinox.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII consulted with scientists and devised a calendar so accurate that it is still in use today. Called the Gregorian calendar in his honor, it creates leap years, which add one day to the calendar every four years, except on centennial years--unless the year is divisible by four.
He then decreed that the New Year would henceforth begin January 1, instead of March 21; and to get the calendar caught up with the seasons, he told everybody they were going to have to lose ten days in the process.
October 4, 1582, would be followed by October 15, 1582. Since he was the Pope he could order this sort of thing and have it happen. Well, almost.
By the sixteenth century, the West was no longer entirely Roman Catholic. The Reformation had swept Europe, the Orthodox churches in the East followed their own calendar, and it consequently took several centuries for the new calendar to be widely adopted.
George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers were all caught up in the change. Britain and her colonies finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, and by that time they had to add eleven days to make it come out right.
September 2, 1752 was followed by September 14, 1752. George Washington, who was 21 at the time, got a new birth date. The original date of his birth, February 11, 1731 (now called O.S. for Old Style) was changed to February 22, 1732 (now called N.S. for New Style). The change of the year, came because Washington was born between January--when the New Year now began--and March--when the New Yard had begun (O.S.)
George Washington kept a diary his entire life and imagine how confusing it was for him! A full five years before the switch, a teenage GW made a diary entry dated Fryday, March 11th 1747/8. It suggests the upcoming change was already on his mind.
What happened, do you suppose, to the eleven days everyone in America lost in 1752? And here's another question: Washington died in 1799. Was he 68 when he died? Or 67?
People in the U.S. began honoring our first president's birthday during his lifetime and the celebrations varied even then. Some were held on the 11th of February and some on the 22nd. This is another vintage card from the Russell Hughes collection.
The U.S. Archives has transcribed all of George Washington's diaries and has them available now On Line. One of the most fascinating things you can do is to read through them and learn more about the life of this remarkable man.