Who is “The Mother of Mother’s Day?”There is no DNA to confirm who actually gave birth to the idea for the holiday. But there has been plenty of debate over the details of Mother’s Day history.
Just as Christopher Columbus washes away Leif Ericson for who discovered America, and Henry Ford rolls over the caveman who invented the wheel, the United States and one of its citizens are widely considered the parents who delivered Mother’s Day to us.
For thousands of years mothers and the art of motherhood have been honored and celebrated around the world. It has taken place in a number of ways. In ancient Greece, there was said to be an annual spring festival. It was dedicated to pay tribute to Rhea, the mother of many of the known deities. Meanwhile, the ancient Romans celebrated a religious festival on the vernal equinox to honor Cybele. She was their Great Mother of Gods. The Romans made many offerings to her. Even back then they knew it was wonderful and wise to stay in Mom’s good graces.
The early Christians celebrated the fourth Sunday in Lent in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. England is credited with expanding this into a holiday known as “Mothering Sunday.” It was established to be a celebration of Mary which was widened to include all mothers. Over time this Christian holiday has been blended to be quite similar to Mother’s Day. In fact, many Europeans confuse them for being the same thing.
Mother’s Day in the United StatesThe early efforts to establish a special day of tribute for mothers in the United States date back to the early 1860′s. The attempts were not the brainchild of an evil business executive with a big celebration in mind. Instead, it was a movement based on an idea which came from the heart…most likely a broken one.
This was the time of the “American Civil War,” or as some called it, the “War Among the States.” Women’s peace groups pushed to promote a “Mother’s Day” throughout the states which were divided not united. Groups of mothers with sons involved in the fighting on both sides of the war would meet to promote peace. Many of these devastated women had sons being wounded or killed in battle. Some estimates claim the death toll from the Civil War was 30% of all Southern white males under the age of 40. It was thought to be 10% of all males in the same age range from Northern states.
Enter Ann Jarvis and Anna Jarvis
Ann Jarvis was the mother of 11 children. She knew all too well about loss. Only 4 of her children lived long enough to become adults. Born in Virginia, she was residing in West Virginia during the American Civil War. She married the son of a pastor and was actively involved in her church.
Ann Jarvis organize “Mother’s Day Work Clubs.” These were women’s groups which raised funds for medicine. They inspected food and milk for safety standards. They even hired women to support families where the mothers were battling tuberculosis. When the railroads made Taylor County, WV, a key strategic site in the war, Ann kindly but boldly organized her troops to remain neutral. And they did. They provided aid and medical care to soldiers in both blue and gray uniforms. Much of what they faced was the result of outbreaks of measles and typhoid fever raging through military camps on both sides.
In 1868 after the Civil War had ended, Ann Jarvis tried again. Tensions were extremely high with families on both sides of the war. So this time she focused on creating a community “Mother’s Friendship Day.” With it she hoped to use mothers to peacefully reunite families broken or divided by the war. The idea didn’t survive beyond a few years.
For decades others tried similar efforts. Protestant schools were very active in honoring similar holidays. But in that era there was no internet to spread them, no videos to go viral. A widespread annual Mother’s Day memorial just couldn’t catch on.
Julia Ward Howe, best known for writing the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” got involved in pushing for a Mother’s Day to promote peace. From New York City to her home in Boston, the suffragist, poet, and pacifist almost singlehandedly tried for years to hold together and sponsor a day which was like a rally of remembrance for American mothers. She believed the estimated three quarters of a million deaths in the Civil War was a heartbreaking loss which was hitting the mothers of these fallen soldiers the hardest.
Despite getting an official Mother’s Day Proclamation, Howe’s efforts only hung on locally in the Boston area for about 10 years.
In 1877 in Albion, Michigan, a dispute over the temperance movement led to one woman’s public call for mothers there to unite. The sons of Juliet Calhoun Blakeley were so inspired by what their mother did they worked for years to get an annual tribute for her. By the 1880’s, they were successful. Albion’s Methodist Episcopal Church designated the second Sunday in May every year for recognizing the special contributions of mothers.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, came another push for a national Mother’s Day in the United States. The Fraternal Order of Eagles started in Seattle, Washington was a group involved in the performing arts. Its president, Frank E. Hering made a public plea in 1904 for a day to honor our nation’s mothers. But one year later, when Ann Jarvis died in Philadelphia, PA, on May 9, 1905, the idea gained new life.
Anna Jarvis was a homemaker in West Virginia. She and her siblings resided with their mother she mother passed away. Anna seemed to make it her life’s mission to follow in her footsteps and finish the job.
Anna Jarvis never gave credit or made mention of any of the previous efforts listed here which history shows took place. She often shared a memory of her mother praying during a Sunday School lesson for establishment of a national Mother’s Day. Publicly and privately, Anna always claimed the creation of Mother’s Day was solely a Jarvis thing.
She began her campaign by organizing “Mother’s Work Day.” The local event was done to bring awareness to the poor health conditions in her community. She thought mothers were the best advocates for gaining support for the cause.
Anna found momentum, influence, and support by lobbying prominent businessmen. Among them was famous Philadelphian John Wanamaker, a successful pioneer in marketing and advertising. This got Anna Jarvis on the path she needed. She was led to connect with politicians. It reached all the way up to include U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft who were said to support her in the quest for creating a special day.
On Sunday, May 12, 1907, in Grafton, West Virginia, Anna Jarvis was able to organize a service at her church, the Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church. It was then that she handed out white carnations to the members of the congregation where her mother had taught Sunday School. Carnations had been her mother’s favorite flower.
The following year marked the first “official” version of the church service in Grafton, West Virginia, which is now a National Historic Landmark as the International Mother’s Day Shrine. John Wanamaker then followed with a much larger ceremony in the auditorium of his huge Philadelphia store. The next year it moved to New York City. Then individual states began to adopt the holiday as well.
In May 1913, the U.S. Mother’s Day movement had its biggest and final “false start” of the many it had experienced over a 50-year period. This came when Congressman James Heflin of Alabama introduced House Resolution 103. It requested members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, President Woodrow Wilson and members of his Cabinet, and all federal officials wear white carnations to honor mothers “for being the greatest source of our country’s strength and inspiration.”
The first capital observance of Mother’s Day was like an adoption of the movement. It spread the message clear across the United States. The overwhelming positive response made it a slam dunk. So the next year, May 9, 1914, Heflin formally introduced legislation. This time it made no mention of carnations. Instead it requested the American flag be on display nationwide as a public expression of love and reverence for our country’s mothers. The bill breezed through the House and Senate.
President Woodrow Wilson immediately and happily signed the bill into law the very same day. It mandated the second Sunday in May was a national holiday, “Mother’s Day.”
The Early Years
Sunday was much more of a “day off” in the U.S. during early 1900’s. Most Americans observed the new holiday by attending church, and giving handwritten letters to their Moms expressing gratitude and appreciation.
But it didn’t take long before the buying and sending of cards, Mother’s Day Gifts, and Mother’s Day Flowers became the actions of choice. Many Moms across America were excited to be showered with such love and affection. Meanwhile, Anna Jarvis grew very angry and bitter.
She felt her idea of the annual tribute had been sacrificed for profit due to the greed of others. In 1923 she filed suit in court to halt a Mother’s Day festival. She was later arrested for disturbing the peace at a convention selling carnations. The proceeds were to benefit a war mother’s group.
Anna Jarvis never married. She never had children. Soon after her milestone achievement she became just as willing to fight Mother’s Day as she had been to establish it. She formed the Mother’s Day International Association as her own corporation. She trademarked the phrases, “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May.” Anna and her sister Ellsinore were said to have spent their entire family inheritance campaigning against the very thing for which she campaigned so long and hard to create.
Before Anna Jarvis died in poverty in West Chester, PA in 1948, she made it known she regretted all she ever did in starting the Mother’s Day tradition. According to her obituary in the New York Times, there was one quote from her which summed up the level of disgust she held for her fellow Americans:
“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.” – Anna Jarvis
This national holiday never died. It just changed with the times and has continued to do so. Sadly, Anna Jarvis could never see how happy so many mothers became on this day of remembrance.
- She would never be able to digest it being the most popular day of the year for dining out and sharing good food as well as good company.
- She would never hear any good coming from it being the highest day of telephone traffic.
- She would never enjoy the day of tribute enjoyed so much today.