clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How one woman's obsession made Mother's Day last

A Mother's Day picnic, circa 1950.
A Mother's Day picnic, circa 1950.
Constance Bannister Corporation/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Mother's Day has its rituals: little kids make Mom breakfast or buy a small present, adults send a card, and those who have lost their mothers try to just ignore it. But the holiday began very differently — it started as a way to help mothers work together, and it only transformed more from there.

Just before one Mother's Day, I spoke to Katharine Lane Antolini, author of the book Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day. It shares the complete story of the woman who conceived and tirelessly promoted Mother's Day, and it also shows just how dramatically the holiday has changed since it began.

Mother's Day began with mothers working together

A Civil War era picture of a mother and her child.

A Civil War–era picture of a mother and her child.

Library of Congress

Before the 1850s, there were celebrations of mothers, including ancient rituals for goddesses like the Greek Rhea and the Roman Cybele. But we can safely say the American holiday had its beginnings in the 1850s. That's because it began with the mother of the woman who ultimately established Mother's Day.

In the 19th century, there were extremely high infant mortality rates in the area that's West Virginia today. Caused by everything from poor sanitation to contaminated milk, it was a problem that Anne Reeves Jarvis was all too familiar with: only four of her 13 children survived into adulthood.

In response, Jarvis started Mothers' Day Work Clubs. The groups sought to help mothers team up to put a dent in high infant mortality and combat other problems. Their motto reflected that vision: "Mothers Work — for Better Mothers, Better Homes, Better Children, Better Men and Women."

"It was mothers being proactive," Antolini says. "It was about motherhood in a larger sense and having a responsibility to the community at large. To [Jarvis], motherhood wasn't just contained, it was about a broader family."

That activism made a strong impression on one of Jarvis's daughters, Anna Jarvis. She said her mother once ended a Bible lesson with a prayer for someone to found a memorial mother's day, and Anna did just that. But in the process, she incorporated her own unique vision of what being a mother meant.

The holiday was born as a "holy day" celebrating mothers

Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother's Day, in 1910.

Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother's Day, in 1910.

Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Anna Jarvis founded Mother's Day in 1908, when she was 44 (three years after her own mother had died). On May 10, 1908, 400 people congregated at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, to celebrate the first Mother's Day.

The location hints at the holiday's religious and spiritual roots. Anna Jarvis believed Mother's Day should serve as a solemn tribute to the living and deceased mothers of the world. Though there had been other contemporaneous celebrations of Mother's Day — one from 1873 even earned national attention — Jarvis's became the most famous.

She selected the second Sunday in May because it marked the anniversary of her mother's death and she wanted Mother's Day to always fall on the Sabbath. Her vision of motherhood stayed constant through the years for a couple of reasons.

"A lot of it is that Anna herself never marries or has children. She has no idea what motherhood means from the eye of the mother," Antolini says. "It was very much seeing motherhood through the eyes of a child." Jarvis retreated from her mother's socially conscious vision for Mother's Day in favor of one that idolized the mother's individual role.

Anna's vision of Mother's Day was one in which children gave personal messages of appreciation to mothers, possibly bought a white carnation for them, and credited their mothers with a nearly sacred domestic role. "There is ONE DAY in the year we do not talk of POOR MOTHERS and ask charity for them," Jarvis once wrote.

As idealistic as Jarvis was, she was also a hustler when it came to promoting her "holy day." She reached out to powerful leaders, the floral industry, and others like wealthy department store owner John Wanamaker. She even quit her job at Fidelity Mutual to start the Mother's Day International Association in 1912 (living off inheritance from her brother and father — Mother's Day itself didn't bring her much profit).

But that dedication didn't stop the holiday from growing into something she no longer recognized.

Commerce, politics, and charity took over Mother's Day. The changes were so great that Jarvis protested them and was arrested.

The Wilson family in 1912. No, Woodrow Wilson did not invent Mother's Day.

The Wilson family in 1912. No, Woodrow Wilson did not invent Mother's Day.

Library of Congress

When Woodrow Wilson declared Mother's Day a national holiday in 1914, he was leaping onto a national bandwagon. Moments like that became symbolic of how the holiday had spiraled beyond Anna Jarvis's control. She always resented when he or anybody else took credit for the holiday.

But Jarvis's greatest contempt was directed at something many people still complain about today: Mother's Day's commercialization. Jarvis had once given florists Mother's Day placards to boost the holiday, but in the 1910s she wanted them stopped. Most famously, she endorsed boycotting florists and crashed a confectioner's convention in protest.

She was even irked by the work of charities. When American War Mothers used Mother's Day to try to raise funds, Jarvis protested it and was arrested for disorderly conduct. She called those who raised money off Mother's Day "Christian pirates." When the Maternity Center Association latched onto Mother's Day, Jarvis said they'd co-opted a day meant for "gratitude to the living, and reverent memories for the deceased."

Why did these Mother's Day changes upset Anna so much? She believed commercialism detracted from true sentiment, and charity made the mother into an object of pity. "She would have said, 'No mother is poor. She has the love of her children,'" Antolini says.

With that, Jarvis may have also seen social campaigns as a gradual devaluation of a mother's individual ability. "Health campaigns seemed to say that women have a proper capacity to love our children, but can't properly raise them," Antolini says. But even as Jarvis's vision continued to be pushed aside, she fought for it just as doggedly the rest of her life.

What would Jarvis think of Mother's Day today?

Does modern Mother's Day fit Jarvis's vision?

Does modern Mother's Day fit Jarvis's vision?


Jarvis died in a sanitarium in 1948, driven to poor health by her unrelenting mission to promote and protect the holiday she created.

Would she like the Mother's Day we have today, with its mix of political and commercial influences (with a particularly heavy dose of the latter)?

"I think she'd have mixed reactions," Antolini says. "The commercial stuff would still bother her. She would be thrilled that it's still being celebrated. That would certainly tickle her."

But that's not all. Antolini is quick to add that Jarvis probably wouldn't have dropped her obsession, so there's one other way she would have reacted to her holiday's enduring appeal: "She would have wanted credit for it."