The history of Mother's Day is a strange one. Here's how it all started — and why its founder resented its commercialization.
A deep dive into the origins of the holiday.
This story was originally published on May 6, 2021. It has been updated and republished for Mother’s Day 2023.
This Sunday is Mother's Day, and if you’re a mom or have a mother, then by all means, celebrate!
You'll be in good company, according to the National Retail Federation, which found that, this year, shoppers plan to spend an average of $274.02 on the day — nearly $30 more than they planned to spend last year and the highest in the survey’s 20-year history. Greeting cards and flowers will be purchased by 74% of people, while 60% will spend on special outings. Spending is also up across gift categories including jewelry, electronics and apparel.
Still, if you're interested in staying truer to the original intent of the holiday — which is not as clear as some would imagine, does not involve spending money on anything and comes with an at-times-dark history, full of bizarre twists and turns — it might be time for a little history lesson.
While a woman named Anna Jarvis is widely credited as being the mother of Mother's Day, "she was not the first to come up with the idea," Katharine Antolini, an assistant professor of history and gender studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College and author of Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for the Control of Mother’s Day, tells Yahoo Life. She says that, through her research on the subject, "I've identified at least five other people who have been tied to claiming the idea."
One was Julia Howe Ward, the lyricist of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and a post-Civil War peace activist, who had a vision of mothers coming together for an international peace movement, as laid out in her peace proclamation. "The idea was that, as mothers, we didn’t raise our sons to die in the trenches," Antolini explains, though Ward pared down her "big ask" and, by 1872, prompted annual gatherings in homes and churches for Mother's Peace Day, on June 2, which was celebrated in various cities, including Philadelphia, until about 1913.
Then there was Mary Towles Sasseen, of Kentucky, a teacher who began promoting the idea of a day to celebrate mothers in her school in 1887; by 1893 it would be observed in various locations across the country. Sasseen was unable to continue her lobbying effort behind the day, set on her mother's birthday of April 20, as she died, along with her unborn child, while in labor. Also credited with the effort is Frank Hering, president of the nonprofit Fraternal Order of the Eagles, who allegedly promoted the idea of Mother's Day in 1904. But Jarvis — the most widely hailed as the woman behind the effort — “would complain about them," Antolini notes. "She fought with Frank forever, in particular, and called them all 'Mother’s Day imposters.'"
Enter Anna Jarvis
So, who was this passionate founder, anyway?
Anna Jarvis was never a mother herself but had great admiration for her own mama, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who had started what she called "Mother's Day work clubs" in the 1850s in Virginia (now West Virginia), a public health initiative to help new moms learn about the spread of disease in an attempt to bring down the high infant mortality rate. Ann relied on her brother James, a doctor, to help educate the women — whom she had always hoped would one day be honored through an official day celebrating mothers.
Ann died before that could happen, in 1905, and that's when daughter Anna stepped in, standing over her mother's grave, as she recalled, and promising to establish a day honoring mothers in Ann's honor. By 1907 she was dedicated to a full-on campaign, writing letters to lobby politicians, the floral industry, merchants and churches, and in 1908, on May 10, her hometown of Grafton, W.Va., hosted an official Mother's Day service, at her mother's church, while Philadelphia, where Anna was living, hosted a service that afternoon; both cities would go on to claim they were the "first" to officially honor the day.
From there, Anna continued to lobby people of influence — Mark Twain, magazine editors, ex-presidents — and by 1912, following West Virginia’s 1910 lead, Mother's Day was recognized as a holiday in every state.
This is when she "starts complaining," notes Antolini, and "that's when she incorporates herself, creates the Mother's Day International Association — literally just herself and headquartered out of her home — claiming copyright over the name and logo, which is white carnation. … She starts to claim it's her holiday, but the floral industry was already running with it in 1912," and she had, after all, "reached out to them in the first place." Merchants got around her copyright claim by calling the holiday "Mothers' Day," using the plural possessive, instead of Anna's singular "Mother's."
But in 1914, it is officially recognized as a national holiday — the second Sunday in May, as per President Woodrow Wilson — making Mother's Day part of the public domain and further prompting Anna to stop what she had started, railing against the commercialization of the day.
And the marketing of the holiday just continued, with Hallmark selling Mother's Day cards by the early 1920s — which felt "insincere" to Anna, notes Antolini. "A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world," Anna is said to have scoffed. Instead of jumping on the money-making bandwagon, Anna died broke, and in a sanatorium. "It really took it all out of her," the historian notes of her lifelong fight.
The once-champion of Mother’s Day also never married or had children, and that shaped her perspective of motherhood and of Mother's Day, Antolini says. "While her mother saw it as a day to be proactive, Anna doesn't have that experience, so her Mother’s Day is very much constructed through the eyes of a child: You go home and spend the day with your mother, who is the center of your world and your home," she explains. "Whereas Ann saw it more as a day for social activism," as did Howe Ward.
Sticking to the original intent
Even knowing the history of Mother's Day, with all of its twists and turns, doesn't make it perfectly clear how to best celebrate in the way that's most true to its roots.
"It depends what route you want to go," notes Antolini. "I think what makes Mother's Day successful is that there’s a duality to it: It’s celebrating motherhood, but I think there's room for you to determine how, and room for it to be a social movement."
Some ways to go in that direction could be volunteering — at a shelter for women and children, for example, or by taking part in the Mother's Day Virtual Run/Walk, benefiting the Wings Program to help those affected by domestic violence, or by perusing the needs of your community on Volunteer Match.
You could also make a Mother's Day donation to one of many organizations that focus on mothers: Single Mothers Outreach, offering free support to single moms around issues such as housing and job assistance; Every Mother Counts, supporting equitable maternity care in communities around the world; the Hunger Project, empowering women in global communities to end hunger; the National Partnership for Women and Families, working to advance policies supportive reproductive rights and economic justice; the Women's Prison Association, empowering women and families in the face of incarceration; and Parents as Teachers, supporting families for optimal early development of their children.
"There are a lot of examples of people using [Mother's Day] as a way to be proactive," says Antolini. "You can go either way. It can just be a simple homecoming, where you go home and thank her for everything. Or it can be a day for women to come together as mothers and say, 'Hey what do we need to do to protect children and make society safer for our families?'" Although, she admits, a bit predictably, "Anna wouldn't like that — she didn’t trust charities. She always said it shouldn't be a day where mothers are pitied. It should be a day of unconditional gratitude." As for which way you'll opt to go? That's for you — and Mom — to decide.
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