Every June the United States collectively goes out shopping for ties, power tools, and other gifts to give to their dad on Father’s Day, the third Sunday of June each year. This simple tradition was not always the norm in America, and Father’s Day just celebrated its 100th birthday a few years ago.
Learn more about Father’s Day and how it came to be an American tradition with this brief history.
A sequel to Mother’s Day
The establishment of Father’s Day was directly related to the growth of Mother’s Day as an annual tradition. Mother’s Day was first observed during the Civil War era, when Ann Reeves Jarvis celebrated “Mother’s Work Day” in the 1860s. That annual celebration was held intermittently for decades before Ann Reeves Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Jarvis, established it as a national holiday with the help of the advertising wing of the John Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia.
Mother’s Day caught on quickly. The first Mother’s Day was held in 1908, was observed by 45 states in 1909, and was officially named a national holiday by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.
The first Father’s Day?
The official first Father’s Day is a point of minor contention. On June 5, 1908, a church in West Virginia held a service honoring fathers after a coal mining collapse killed 362 men in the community and left over 1,000 children fatherless. This is the first-known instance of an official honoring of fathers, but this single event did not start the modern practice of Father’s Day.
The mother of Father’s Day, so to speak, was Sonora Smart Dodd, a resident of Spokane, Washington. Sonora Smart Dodd’s mother had died during childbirth, which left her father to raise six children as a single parent. She wanted to honor both him and fathers across the country by hosting Father’s Day on her father’s birthday, which was, coincidentally, June 5, the same day the West Virginia church had held their Father’s Day service the year prior. Dodd suggested this to the ministry of the Spokane church, but they requested more time to prepare a sermon for the event. June 19, 1909, was chosen as the new date for the first Father’s Day, and in the following year, Washington State held the first statewide Father’s Day celebration.
Spread and pushback
The event spread throughout the United States at a much slower pace than Mother’s Day had over the same period of years. The first presidential acknowledgement of Father’s Day came in 1916, two years after Mother's Day had been adopted as a federal holiday, when President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button that sent a telegraphic signal that unfurled an American flag in Spokane on Father’s Day.
President Calvin Coolidge was also a supporter of the holiday and suggested it be adopted by the U.S. in 1924. But the public was less enthusiastic about celebrating Father’s Day than they had been about Mother’s Day, and both were nearly eliminated and combined into one holiday that grew in popularity during the 1920s and 1930s, Parent’s Day.
It was the push to commercialize the holiday that garnered the most distrust from the general population. Department stores had stated a goal of creating a “second Christmas” fueled by gift giving around Father’s Day, which many of the public found distasteful. However, the financial hardship during the Great Depression of the 1930s helped advance the cause of Father’s Day, as the struggling retailers intensified their ad campaign selling the event and gifts with it.
The Second World War was another boon to Father’s Day, as buying gifts for Father’s Day became a way to support the troops who were fighting overseas. By the time World War II had ended, Father’s Day was an institution in the country, even if it was not a federal holiday.
Road to a Federal Holiday
Father’s Day faced a few more hurdles before it became recognized as a federal holiday. It was recognized by Congress for the first time in 1956. Ten years later, in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson issued a proclamation in favor of having Father’s Day be celebrated as a federal holiday. But it wasn’t until 1972 when President Richard Nixon made it official.
The holiday became an official holiday just a few short years before Sonora Smart Dodd would die in 1978 at age of 96.