The poem was written in 1859 and first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1860. It was later included in the collection Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863). Longfellow wrote the poem a few years after resigning from his professorship at Harvard to devote himself full-time to his writing.
Longfellow based the poem off of his own home life; the three daughters in the text bear the names of three of his own children. In early editions a portrait of the three daughters by Thomas Buchanan Read was distributed with the text. Famously, a copy of the poem was found next to the body of a soldier who'd been killed on the field at Gettysburg; the Maine Historical Society now possesses that copy in its archives.
The poem has been criticized by some contemporary and modern critics for being too sentimental; Henry James parodied it in his story “The Point of View” (1883). Nevertheless, it is often anthologized, especially in collections for children.