The annual Senate reading of the address began in 1896, but it was first read in 1862, to commemorate Washington’s 130th birthday, according to the US Senate website. During the throes of the Civil War, both chambers of Congress, Supreme Court justices, military officers, and cabinet members came together to hear the address read by Senate Secretary John W. Forney. President Abraham Lincoln did not attend because his son Willie had died just two days prior.
The Senate read the address again in 1888 to celebrate the centennial of the Constitution’s ratification.
Starting in 1896, every senator who read the address (which takes roughly 45 minutes) signed their name and wrote comments in a leather-bound book kept by the secretary of the Senate.
The early remarks were mere formalities: “Read according to custom, pursuant to a resolution adopted by the Senate and by designation of the Vice President.”
But in the 1940s, comments became more personal, reflecting individual feelings or remarks about the politics of the day.