History of Mother’s Day

Celebrating Mom in America and the Curious Case of Anna Jarvis

Photo of Kelly R. Smith   by Kelly R. Smith

Happy Mother's Day
Happy Mother’s Day!
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Mother’s Day here in the U.S. is celebrated at just the right time of year — spring, a time of hope, renewal, and new life. In the United States, Mother’s Day 2021 will occur on Sunday, May 9. Many other countries around the world celebrate their version of Mother’s Day on traditional dates with their individual customs.

Early History of Mother’s Day

Those in the know tell us that the origins of Mother’s Day stretch back to the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations. They staged festivals to honor the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. The most modern precedent for our model of Mother’s Day is the old Christian festival called “Mothering Sunday.”

This was at one time a major celebration in the United Kingdom and some areas of Europe. This celebration was held on the fourth Sunday during Lent. It was viewed as a time when the faithful folks would visit their “mother church.” This was the main church closest to their home. There, a special service would be held.

Evolving over time, the Mothering Sunday tradition became a more secular holiday, much as St. Patrick’s Day has. Children would gift their mothers flowers and a variety of other tokens of their appreciation. Eventually, this custom bowed out of popularity before forming the basis of the American version of Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s.

Mother’s Day in America

The traditions of Mother’s Day as celebrated in the United States date back to the 19th century. In the years before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia helped create what were called “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to properly care for their children.

The clubs turned out to be an important unifying force in an area of the country that was still at odds over the Civil War. Then in 1868 Jarvis created “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” at which mothers joined with prior Union and Confederate soldiers in order to promote reconciliation.

Another player in the development of the holiday was the abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe. Howe wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870. It asked mothers to unite to promote world peace. (Sound familiar?) In 1873 She pushed for a “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated on June 2.

There were others. Juliet Calhoun Blakely, for one. She was a temperance activist who conceived of a local Mother’s Day in Albion, Michigan, in the 1870s. Mary Towles Sasseen and Frank Hering collaborated to organize a Mothers’ Day in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hering has been dubbed “the father of Mothers’ Day.”

Enter Anna Jarvis

What we know today as the official Mother’s Day holiday came about in the 1900s resulting from the efforts of Anna Jarvis, daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis. After her mother’s death in 1905, Anna Jarvis developed Mother’s Day to commemorate the sacrifices mothers typically make for the sake of their children.

She organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. She funded this by securing financial support from Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker in May 1908. Coincidentally, on that same day, thousands of people attended another Mother’s Day event held at one of Wanamaker’s stores located in Philadelphia. Should this use of a department store have been a foreshadowing event for Jarvis?

After the overwhelming success of the first Mother’s Day, Jarvis was determined to see that her holiday was appended to the existing national calendar. She contended that U.S. holidays were skewed toward the achievements of men. She initiated a huge letter-writing campaign to newspapers and politicians recommending the adoption of a unique day to honor motherhood.

A great number of states, towns, and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday by 1912. Jarvis had put in place the Mother’s Day International Association as a means to promote the cause. Her persistence bore fruit in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed off on a measure that officially established the second Sunday each May as Mother’s Day.

Jarvis is Conflicted

Jarvis had imagined Mother’s Day to be a day of happiness between mothers, children, and families. Wearing a white carnation as an emblem was to be part of the tradition. Visiting with one’s mother or going to church services were to be standard protocol. However, as soon as Mother’s Day was recognized as a national holiday, florist vendors, greeting card companies, and other commercial interests jumped on its popularity. This all went against Jarvis’ grain.

Ironically, Jarvis had worked with the floral industry initially to assist in promoting the Mother’s Day’s concept. Now she had become disillusioned with how the day had been turned into such a commercial machine. She outspokenly repudiated the way things had turned out and urged people to stop buying Mother’s Day flowers, cards, and candies.

Eventually, Jarvis mounted an open campaign against these interests. She spoke out against candy companies, florists, and yes, even charities. Additionally, she launched a slew of lawsuits against organizations that used the term “Mother’s Day.” In the end, she exhausted the bulk of her personal wealth in legal fees. By the time she died in 1948, Jarvis had disowned the holiday lock, stock, and barrel, and she even lobbied the government to see it removed from the American calendar. Altogether a sad bit of American history.

On the bright side, we still have a wonderful Mother’s Day holiday, commercial warts and all.

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at Considered Opinions Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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