Today, Father's Day is part of the pantheon of sentimental holidays. And one commonly uttered joke about the holiday is that it was sponsored by people who sold neckties.
The truth is, Father's Day was sponsored by people who sold neckties.
Father's Day began in Mother's Day's shadow — and was a bit of a joke
Father's Day began earnestly enough. After the 1908 founding of Mother's Day, it seemed like a natural extension to give a holiday to dear old Dad, and in 1910, a Spokane, Washington woman named Sonora Dodd proposed just that.
Leigh Eric Schmidt tells the holiday's story in his excellent (and cynical) Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays. Dodd, the daughter of a single father who raised six children, believed that fathers should be celebrated just as ardently as mothers (though there were other Father's Day proposals around the same time, Dodd's was the most successful).
She asked her pastor to start a Father's Day celebration, and in 1910, Dodd and the local YMCA established a petition for Father's Day that was quickly adopted by local churches. In that way, Father's Day began like Mother's Day — as a religiously influenced holiday meant to honor fathers.
The problem was that at the time, the idea of a holy image of an actual father was a joke. Early celebrations were tonally off, as well, with love for fathers symbolized by a pinned-on rose. That sentimentality was a poor fit for dads in the 1910s, and from the beginning, people joked about how Father's Day would be more of a burden than a treat. A 1915 article in Arizona was typical: it suggested that dads would most like to sleep late and drink. A cartoon first published in the Washington Star 1913 depicted the holiday the same way:
These jokes weren't just fun had at the father's expense. They probably reflected a different idea of the father as, at best, a breadwinner, and at worst, a distant, less-than-lovable figure. In 1911, the governor of Washington actually held forth on the holiday to say, "We fathers can scratch along in some way without having such a flattering mention of us." The general sentiment was that fathers could get "along very well without a day" because Dad was just "the old critter" who paid the bills.
He was thought of as "Pard," the "Old Man," or "the Governor," not as a hallowed figure (or a necessarily lovable one).
That said, Father's Day never disappeared — in 1916, a thousand-boy chorus in Spokane celebrated the holiday, and it was a feature of sermons around the country.
But it also passed unnoticed in New York in 1921 ("Father's Day slips past New Yorkers unobserved"), and, as Schmidt notes in Consumer Rites, "no one took the day seriously." It was at risk of being forgotten — or simply a half-remembered holiday like Secretary's Day or Grandparents' Day is today. In 1926, the New York Times declared Father's Day a hopeless project that had languished for 20 years.
So what saved Father's Day from obscurity? Neckties.
The Father's Day Council makes Father's Day dapper
Mother's Day had a tireless champion in its founder, Anna Jarvis, who obsessively promoted her holiday. But Father's Day's founder, Dodd, had other interests — she was an artist, not an obsessive. Attempts to make the holiday a national one fell short, and interest flagged until 1936, when a group called the Father's Day Committee lent a hand.
The group behind the Father's Day Council? New York Associated Menswear Retailers. Yes, Father's Day was truly boosted by people who sold neckties (as well as dapper shirts and hats, of course), and in 1938 they expanded their efforts to become the National Council for the Promotion of Father's Day.
Their efforts were in response to poor sales in 1937. Schmidt's book quotes one report that only one in six dads was getting a gift on the big day, so the group set the goal of increasing those sales.
With the help of dry goods, clothing, and tobacco associations, they did just that. They convinced Macy's to hold 1941's "Father's Day Sports Day" parade and also promoted civic-minded Father's Day events, like the selection of a father of the year. By 1949, Father's Day sales had climbed to $106 million, but the association didn't consider its job done. Leigh quotes one particularly desperate communication:
Some think that like Christmas, Father's Day is here to stay and needs no organized effort. That is a fatal mistake. If the central bureau and organization promotion were discontinued, Father's Day would die a miserable death.
So the promotion kept going, and Dodd became more involved in selling the holiday, repeating her story happily to the press and other retailers. Sales soared to an estimated $940 million in 1963. And slowly, national appreciation of the holiday followed. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson issued a presidential proclamation designating the holiday, and Richard Nixon made it official in 1972.
Father's Day made it from upstart holiday to joke to billion-dollar national institution in a little more than 50 years.
So is Father's Day just a ruse to sell neckties?
All of this leaves a question: if Father's Day was truly pushed into prominence by retailers, is it worth celebrating? The holiday is definitely still a commercial hit — the National Retail Federation estimates a $12.7 billion take in 2015.
But when Dodd died in 1978 — at 96 years old — her obituary included less commercial reflections on the holiday. It notes that her own son was named Washington, DC's father of the year in 1952, and it also quotes her original proposal of a holiday to celebrate dads. Through all the marketing and mockery, the sentiment is still worth hearing, no matter how cluttered the tie rack may be:
"I liked everything you said about motherhood," Mrs. Dodd said she told the minister. "However, don't you think fathers deserve a place in the sun, too?"