The History of Earth Day

In 1969, alarmed by increasingly grim reports of environmental threats brought on by human activity, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson proposed a national day of environmental education and activism. Writing to governors, mayors, and educators, Nelson hoped his grassroots campaign would raise awareness of important ecological issues. The idea was a success; twenty million Americans participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and today the annual event is celebrated all over the world.

Curated by Kelli Billings, Tyler Haney, Katie Mulligan, and Ben Popp. Designed and installed by Kelli Billings and Katie Mulligan.

View the History of Earth Day

  • Nelson Bio

    Gaylord Nelson signed this copy of his 2002 autobiography, which also explores environmental concerns present three decades after the first Earth Day, for a West Chester University faculty member.

    On loan from Joan Welch.

  • Magazines

    Popular magazines covered the events of Earth Day 1970. Nelson’s piece for Look explains the rationale behind his calls for environmental action and encourages readers to participate. In the following days, Life published a photo of demonstrators crowding New York City’s Fifth Avenue, as well as an article highlighting the key role of college students in the events. TIME’s April 23, 1990 cover story highlighted the growing global interest in environmental action after a period of stagnation in the 1980s.

  • Towel and Buttons

    This beach towel is on loan from WCU Department of Mathematics member James Godbold, who purchased it in Washington D.C. in 1971. It depicts the “ecology” symbol designed by cartoonist Ron Cobb in 1969, which is also featured in our collection of buttons.

  • Buttons & Letters

    One donor shared a letter reminiscing about the Earth Day celebration in 1990 and her love for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, which produced the pink “green” Earth Day button on display.

  • Stamps


    The United States Postal Service has issued several stamps commemorating EarthDay, attesting to the movement’s cultural and political importance.In 1995 (top), a series of stamps focused onenvironmental education for children; in1999 (middle) Earth Day was selected as one of the momentous events of the 1970sin the “Celebrate the Century” series; in 2020 (bottom) a new stamp was issuedcommemorating the 50thanniversary of Earth Day.

  • Rachel Carson

    On the 10thanniversary of Earth Day, the United States honored Rachel Carson,author of the influential book,Silent Spring, on a postage stamp. Her book inspiredAmericans, including Gaylord Nelson, to think more about their impact on theenvironment.

  • Poster

    Behind the display case are two posters from Earth Day 1990. The poster on the left includes the theme of that year’s celebration: “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

Virtual History
Virtual History


Take a tour with student co-curators Ben Popp and Katie Mulligan.

History Tour


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