A History of Mother’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Flowers for Mother, from Pictures and Prattle for the Nursery children’s book by Harrison Weir, published in 1880: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

Today is Mother’s Day in the United States. Where did this holiday come from? It began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis, editor and Progressive Era activist, decided to pay tribute to her mother in Philadelphia. She also, incidentally, started the tradition of giving flowers on the day by sending five hundred white carnations to the church in her hometown as part of the tribute.

Although Jarvis is credited as the godmother of Mother’s Day in the United States, she was not the first to come up with the idea. That honor goes to Jarvis’ own mother Ann Maria Jarvis. From all accounts, Ann Maria was the prototype Victorian woman, devoted to her children and her church. At the same time, she was also an activist but, unlike the suffragists, she kept to her side of the separate spheres. Her work was confined to areas acceptable for women (church and home). Her activist work was nonetheless important, as she formed Mothers’ Day Club events where the goal was to educate mothers on proper hygiene to prevent the massive infant death rates prevalent in the nineteenth century. 

It’s interesting to note Ann Maria conceived of Mother’s Day quite differently than her daughter. To Ann Maria, maternal responsibility was very much linked to community service, and her idea was to celebrate the role of motherhood in society and family. Her daughter, on the other hand, wanted to make the day a national holiday where both men and women honored their individual mothers — hence, we call it Mother’s Day and not Mothers’ Day. So Jarvis took Mother’s Day to a very personal level.

The fight to get Mother’s Day declared a national holiday came during the first decade of the twentieth century when many women were advocating taking their lives outside the private sphere and fighting in social and political arenas for their rights and identities as individuals. It might seem a little odd that Jarvis would, at this time in history, lead a movement honoring women’s most traditional role inside the home. In addition, Jarvis was one of these New Women who held a career as an advertising editor and earned a college degree. But suffragism was also about making women visible and respected for their own merits and contributions to society. Mothers fit right into this category (since you have to be a woman to be a mother, right?)

Photo Credit: Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day in America. Probably taken around the turn of the century, judging by the hairstyle and clothes, but no additional information about the image. Uploaded 4 May 2017 by Jonas Duyvejonck: jonasduyvejonck/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In May of 1914 (only a few months before the outbreak of World War I), President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. By the 1920’s, Mother’s Day, like most American holidays, had become a target for consumerism, specifically florists and candy makers. Jarvis was disillusioned by this toward the end of her life and spent much of her later years trying to gain the recognition she deserved. One of the beautiful things about history is that, while innovators may not be appreciated during their own lifetime, we can look back and give them the kudos they deserve decades, even centuries, later. 

Mothers play a huge role in my fiction. Some of them are martyrs (like Mary’s mother in the short story “Mother of Mischief,” which is part of my collection of post-war stories, Lessons From My Mother’s Life), while others are hard-bitten and manipulative (like Joan’s mother in the story “Soul Destinations,” also part of that collection). In my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Larissa, the Alderdice family matriarch, is a complex mother whose attitude toward life and toward her children changes over time.

You can find out more about Larissa and the rest of the characters of the Waxwood Series on this page. Check out both Larissa and Penelope Alderdice (Larissa’s mother) in Book 1 of the series, The Specter, recently revised and updated and now at 99¢. All my books feature interesting mothers, and you can find out more about them here.    

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