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Anna Jarvis and the Surprising History of Mother’s Day

There’s more to the loving holiday than meets the eye.

On May 10, 1908, the first official Mother’s Day celebration took place at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Anna Jarvis organized the event in honor of her late mother, social activist and Sunday school teacher Ann Reeves Jarvis. Mother Jarvis, as Ann Reeves Jarvis was known, had dreamed of a day that honored mothers everywhere. Now, those dreams were becoming a reality thanks to her daughter. 

Indeed, Anna Jarvis was determined to elevate Mother’s Day to the national stage in the United States. Six years later, her hard work paid off. On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation that made Mother’s Day a national holiday, dedicating the second Sunday of May to the "public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country."

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You’d be forgiven if you thought Jarvis’s fight ended here. The commemorative day was now official. Flash forward to the present, Mother’s Day means flowers, a phone call, and a lovely brunch with mom—that’s all there is to it, right? In reality, the history of Mother’s Day is both radical and contentious, as Jarvis herself soon grew so disgusted by the commercialization of the holiday she helped create that she later fought to have it abolished.  

The Origins of Mother’s Day 

Commemorative days and festivals celebrating motherhood can be found across cultures and throughout history. In the United States, the push for a day honoring motherhood did not begin with Anna Jarvis. In fact, its roots trace back to the anti-war movements and social organizing of the 19th century—and Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. In 1858, Mother Jarvis began organizing Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in different communities throughout western Virginia. These clubs provided education and assistance to young mothers in an effort to reduce infant mortality rates and suppress the spread of disease. 

Then, in 1861, the American Civil War began; two years later, the western region of Virginia broke away from the state to form West Virginia. Mother Jarvis recalibrated her work clubs to provide aid during the war—and urged her fellow club members to remain neutral and serve both sides of the conflict. Across the fractured county lines of Virginia and West Virginia, this was no easy feat. Nevertheless, Mother Jarvis remained committed to neutrality, offering care to both Union and Confederate soldiers.

civil war union
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After the Civil War ended, Ann Reeves Jarvis continued to push for healing and peace. In 1868, she organized a Mothers Friendship Day at the Taylor County Courthouse in Pruntytown, West Virginia. Former Union and Confederate soldiers, along with their families, were encouraged to attend the event and come together under the banner of unity. 

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Not long after Jarvis’s Mothers Friendship Day, far to the north in Boston, another social activist appealed to mothers everywhere in the name of peace. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, best known as the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", wrote her "Appeal to womanhood throughout the world"—also known as the "Mother’s Day Proclamation". Written in response to the horrors of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, Howe called upon women and mothers everywhere to join the fight for peace. Howe proposed a Mothers Day for Peace event, to be held on June 2, urging women to come together on the same day every year and advocate for peace in their communities. According to Katharine Antolini, historian and author of Memorializing Motherhood, cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago answered Howe’s call, holding Mothers Peace Day events every June until roughly 1913. 

Anna Jarvis

anna jarvis history of mother's day
  • Anna Jarvis

  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Anna Jarvis was born on May 1, 1864 in Webster, West Virginia. She was the ninth of eleven children born to Ann Reeves Jarvis, though some reports suggest Reeves Jarvis had thirteen children and Anna was the tenth child born. Sadly, just four of the Jarvis siblings, including Anna, survived to adulthood. 

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As a child, Anna Jarvis attended Sunday school sessions taught by her mother. It was during one such session that a twelve-year-old Anna listened to her mother issue the following prayer: "I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it."

Ann Reeves Jarvis passed away on May 9, 1905. Soon thereafter, Anna Jarvis embarked on a spirited campaign to fulfill her mother’s wish.  

The Campaign for Mother’s Day 

anna jarvis history of mother's day
  • Anna Jarvis

  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

May 10, 1908 saw the memorial event at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Jarvis was not in Grafton on this day—though she did send a celebratory telegram and 500 carnations to all those who attended the ceremony. Instead, Jarvis was in Philadelphia, delivering a Mother’s Day speech at the Wanamaker Store Auditorium.

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Her campaigning efforts were gaining traction at the local level; yet she met resistance in Congress. A 1908 proposal to make Mother's Day official was rejected. Congressmen, like Senator Henry Moore Teller, dismissed the Mother’s Day proposal as "absolutely absurd"; Senator Fulton mockingly argued  that approving Mother’s Day would necessitate holidays for aunts, uncles, and mothers-in-law.

Jarvis persevered. By 1911, every state observed some form of Mother’s Day. In 1914, President Wilson’s proclamation made Mother’s Day an official national holiday.  

The Commercialization of Mother’s Day—and Anna Jarvis’s Turn 

Anna Jarvis was victorious. Yet in just a few short years, the mother of Mother’s Day would turn on the holiday she helped create. By 1920, florists, candy makers, and greeting card manufacturers had monetized Mother’s Day. Jarvis was disgusted by what she saw as the crass commercialization and exploitation of her holiday; it was meant "to be a day of sentiment, not profit."

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Soon, she began actively campaigning against these commercial efforts. Jarvis urged people to cease buying flowers, candies, and greeting cards for their mothers on Mother’s Day. She printed and distributed buttons that featured white carnations to combat the floral industry's rising flower sales. She also incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association and registered the phrase "Second Sunday in May, Mother's Day, Anna Jarvis, Founder" as the organization's trademark. 

anna jarvis history of mother's day
  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

In the years that followed, Jarvis’s push to protect her holiday intensified—and grew more confrontational. In 1923, she protested a confectioner’s convention in Philadelphia. In 1925, she was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after crashing an American War Mothers gathering. The event’s organizers were selling carnations as part of a fundraiser for servicemen and their families. In 1934, the United States Postal Service announced a commemorative Mother’s Day stamp featuring Gilded Age artist James McNeil Whistler’s portrait of his mother. Jarvis refused to see "Mother’s Day" used on the stamp, so the phrase was omitted from the final design.

Heated letters were sent, forceful press releases issued, and multiple lawsuits were launched. At her peak, Jarvis reportedly had 33 Mother’s Day-related lawsuits active at the same time. She even threatened to sue the Golden Rule Foundation and its honorary chairwoman, Eleanor Roosevelt, for the foundation’s Mother’s Day fundraising and promotional efforts.

Inevitably, Jarvis’s crusade took its toll. She had funneled nearly all of her time, energy, and personal wealth in the fight against the commercialization of Mother’s Day, a day that had since given rise to a lucrative holiday industry. She was exhausted, and she was broke.

Anna Jarvis withdrew from the public eye towards the end of her life. One of her final acts of protest was the circulation of a petition that called for the repeal of Mother’s Day. Her savings depleted, she spent her final days in the Marshall Square Sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She died there on November 24, 1948, at the age of 84.

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Shortly before her death, Anna Jarvis was said to have told a Readers Digest journalist that she regretted ever starting Mother’s Day. And yet, Mother’s Day letters penned by strangers were still sent to her every year. One such letter, cherished by Jarvis, reportedly hung on the wall of her sanitarium room.

A little boy had written it. It read: "I am six years old and I love my mother very much. I am sending you this because you started Mother's Day."

And sewn into the letter was a $1 bill. 

Featured photo: Alchetron

Published on 09 May 2019

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