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A Brief History of Mother’s Day

[But be warned: this story does not have a happy ending.]


1. Early American Forerunners to Mother’s Day.

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)

In the USA, Julia Ward Howe suggested the idea of Mother’s Day in 1872. Howe, who wrote the words to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, saw Mother’s Day as being dedicated to peace. You can read more about the original proclamation of Mother’s Peace Day in 1870, including Julia Ward Howe’s powerful sentiments on the subject here: Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870. Here is how it begins:

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:

“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

Then, years later, on May 13, 1877, which was the second Sunday of the month, Juliet Calhoun Blakeley stepped into the pulpit of the Albion Methodist Episcopal Church in Michigan and completed the sermon for the Reverend Myron Daughterty. Allegedly, Daughterty was distraught because an anti-temperance group had forced his son to spend the night in a saloon. He could not finish the sermon himself, so she did.

Proud of their mother’s achievement, Charles and Moses Blakeley encouraged others to pay tribute to their mothers. In the 1880’s the Albion Methodist church began celebrating Mother’s Day in Blakeley’s honor. See: JULIET CALHOUN BLAKELEY.

Mary Towles Sasseen, a Kentucky schoolteacher, began Mother’s Day celebrations as early as 1887. In 1904, Frank Hering of South Bend, Indiana began efforts to have a day set aside for the observance of Mother’s Day.

 2. Anna M. Jarvis — the Founder of America’s Mother’s Day.

Anna Jarvis (1864-1948)

Anna Jarvis (1864-1948)

But, no really official Mother’s Day existed until the twentieth century, when Anna M. Jarvis, a Philadelphia schoolteacher, began organizing a national movement for the establishment of such a day. This was done in honor of her mother — to whom she was devoted: Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis. (Okay. At this point it gets confusing, because they were both named Anna Jarvis. I’ll try to make it clear as we go along.)

Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis , organized a series of Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in Webster, Grafton, Fetterman, Pruntytown, and Philippi, (West Virginia) to improve health and sanitary conditions, before the beginning of the Civil War.

civil-war_1During the Civil War, she urged the Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to declare their neutrality and to aid both Union and Confederate soldiers. The clubs treated the wounded and regularly fed and clothed soldiers stationed in the area. Her hard work was all the more touching while considering the personal losses she was going through herself. Four of her children died during the war, and eight of her twelve children in all died before reaching adulthood.

Near the end of the war, the Jarvis family moved to the larger town of Grafton, West Virginia. Naturally, as West Virginians fought on both sides during the war (the state, incorporated into the Union in 1864, was part of Virginia before the war), there was great tension when the soldiers returned home. In the summer of 1865, Anna Jarvis organized a Mothers’ Friendship Day at the courthouse in Pruntytown to bring together soldiers and neighbors of all political beliefs. The event was a surprising success of friendship and peace. Mothers’ Friendship Day became an annual event for several years.

4. Turning Grief Into a Holiday

When the older Mrs. Jarvis died on May 9, 1905, her daughter was determined to honor her. Unmarried and alone with her blind sister Elsinore, Anna was devastated by the loss of her mother. She also felt that in this hard-working, industrialized nation of the turn-of-the-century, adult children had become negligent in the treatment of their parents.

mothers-day_3So, daughter Anna led a small tribute to her mother at Andrews Methodist Church on May 12, 1907, and dedicated her life to establishing a nationally recognized Mother’s Day. Receiving advice and financial assistance from John Wanamaker, she wrote countless letters to people from all walks of life, including congressmen, asking them to set aside a day to honor mothers. She asked the pastor at her church to give a sermon in her mother’s memory. At Anna’s request, on Sunday, 10 May 1908, the pastor of the Andrews Methodist Church (the church in which her mother had attended and taught Sunday School) in Grafton, West Virginia held a Mother’s Day observance, honoring Mrs. Jarvis’ memory, the church bell ringing 72 times in honor of each year of Mrs. Jarvis’ life. Daughter Anna handed out white carnations (her mother’s favorite flower) to all who attended. On the same Sunday in Philadelphia, a pastor honored Mrs. Jarvis and all mothers with a special Mother’s Day service at Wanamaker Store Auditorium in Philadelphia. In 1910, the Governor of West Virginia proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day; and a year later, every state celebrated it, as well as countries in South America, Asia, and Africa.

5. Process of State Holiday to Federal Holiday

The Mother’s Day International Association was incorporated on December 12, 1912, for the purpose of promoting the day, and its observance. In recognition of Anna Jarvis’ efforts, she went to Zurich as a delegate to the World’s Sunday School Convention.

The House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution in May 1913 that all officials of the federal government (including the president, the cabinet, and the House) to wear white carnations on Mother’s Day.

On May 7, 1914 Senator Heflin of Alabama and Senator Sheppard of Texas sponsored a bill recommending President Wilson to designate the second Sunday in May as the official day for expressing love and reverence for all mothers of the country. President Wilson signed the resolution and the first established Mother’s Day was May 8, 1914.

At first, Americans observed Mother’s Day by attending the churches of their baptisms and by visiting or writing letters to their mothers (not unlike the “a-Mothering” in England centuries past). Gradually, other sentiments were added, such as giving presents and candy, mailing cards, and sending flowers.

6. Disappointment & Bitterness

jarvis-vs-mothers-dayBut it was these additions of gifts, flowers and candy that caused Anna Jarvis to grow downright bitter over the bastardization of the holiday she created. It was quite naive of her to think that any holiday, even one honoring mothers, would not be commercialized. But Jarvis grew so bitter & enraged by the commercialization of the holiday, that she filed a lawsuit to stop a 1923 Mother’s Day festival and was even arrested for disturbing the peace at a war mothers’ convention where women sold white carnations — Jarvis’ symbol for mothers — to raise money. “This is not what I intended,” Jarvis said. “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit!” In 1934, the Postal Service issued a three-cent stamp of the painting of Whistler’s Mother as a special tribute to all mothers past and present, and Jarvis grew upset at that, and traveled to Washington to protest against what was being done to “her” holiday. Jarvis soon lost her sister, lost her house, and had to have money raised by friends to put her in a sanitarium when she lost her eyesight. Jarvis died there in 1948.

Jarvis told a reporter shortly before her death that she was sorry she had ever started Mother’s Day.


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