Depending on where in the world you call home, Mother’s Day has either just passed or is around the corner. In the United States, Mother’s Day always falls on the second Sunday in May. Officially, our nation has been celebrating the maternal holiday since 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson declared it a national celebration. But did you know that people have been celebrating Mother’s Day far longer than that and that it has a pretty interesting back story?
A world reeling from war and epidemics
Woodrow Wilson and Anna Jarvis might get the credit for making Mother’s Day a national holiday, but the tradition actually began in the 1800s. You might be surprised to find out that Jarvis’ fight to make Mother’s Day a real holiday wasn’t entirely her own idea. It turns out her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia, spearheaded the charge during the 1850s. There were a variety of factors that contributed to a desire to celebrate moms, but the main contributors included poor sanitary conditions in Jarvis’ Appalachian region, leading to a high infant mortality rate and the devastating American Civil War and Franco-Prussian Wars.
During the 1800s, typhoid and poor sanitary habits led to many children dying before their first birthday. For Reeves Jarvis, of the 13 children she bore, only four survived to adulthood. In general, the average infant mortality rate for the Appalachian region in the 1850s was between 15 to 30 percent. Because of this, Reeves Jarvis advocated for a Mothers’ Day Work Camp, where mothers from around the region would meet to learn about proper hygiene methods to help bring that mortality rate down.
But when war broke out in the 1860s, many mothers were very vocal in their anti-war sentiments and often protested for peace. This concept was heavily promoted by Julia Ward Howe, who lobbied for mothers to join together in a show of solidarity with her Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870. After the Civil War, Reeves Jarvis’ Mothers’ Day Work Camp events also evolved into Mothers’ Friendship Day to help former Union and Confederate soldiers reconnect and reconcile.
So how did Mothers’ Day become Mother’s Day?
Fast forward to 1908 and the younger Anna Jarvis took up the mantle to advocate for Mother’s Day—a day where families would celebrate their own mothers. This was a very different goal from her mother, who focused on empowering and educating mothers to protect their children. Historians have conjectured that the shift from empowerment to celebration is due to the fact that Anna Jarvis never married or had children. So, it’s assumed that she never had to worry about losing a child to disease or war and focused instead on celebrating her mother and others like her.
However, just because she wasn’t a mother to a child didn’t mean that Anna Jarvis didn’t want to be a mother to something. As a result, she worked tirelessly to position herself as the “Mother of Mother’s Day”and often took people and entities to court if they attempted to claim ownership of or profit from the holiday she created.
From unofficial to official
As early as 1887, many cities and states around the country had already begun to organize official days to recognize mothers, although the days weren’t uniform. For example, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago all held Mother’s Day celebrations on June 2nd until Woodrow Wilson formally shifted the holiday to the second Sunday in May in 1914.
Anna Jarvis abhorred the idea of turning her sacred holiday into a money-making scheme. Unfortunately, once Mother’s Day took off as a national event, it was hard to prevent florists, chocolatiers, restaurants and other retailers from leveraging the holiday for financial gain. Every chance she got, she decried these business owners as classless pirates.
She even aimed her ire at charities that used the day to fundraise for needy families or widowed mothers from World War I. According to her, because it was hard to confirm whether these charities were really giving money to those who needed it most, she didn’t want them using her holiday to steal money for their own purposes.
Anna Jarvis’ about-face and sad end
It’s not an understatement to say that Anna Jarvis devoted her adult life from 1905 to 1948 to championing Mother’s Day, retaining ownership over creating it and attempting to keep its purpose pure. In her later years, she became so disillusioned by its commercialization that she disowned the holiday and even petitioned the government to remove it from the official holiday calendar.
Mother’s Day was an inevitable runaway train. Once it became popular and mainstream, Jarvis couldn’t control the message. She ran through her inheritance and lost her sanity, bringing lawsuits against people and organizations she thought were ruining Mother’s Day. In 1948, Anna Jarvis died penniless and blind in a sanitarium in Pennsylvania. Ironically, for the entire five years she spent in that facility, her medical fees were paid for by the same candy and greeting card firms that she rallied against.
Do you think that Mother’s Day is a commercial money grab or truly something sweet and sentimental? Whichever side you fall on, we can all agree that it’s a day to spend time with our mothers and show how much we appreciate them!