Photo from Buzzfeed.
By Terrance Turner
May 9, 2022
Today is Mother’s Day, an annual holiday honoring mothers in society. Many in the United States know that the occasion is celebrated on the second Sunday in May. But they may not know the history of the holiday — or why its founder later regretted creating it.
In 1870, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe issued a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” calling for all mothers of all nationalities to band together and promote peace, so that their sons wouldn’t be killed fighting in war. (You may know Howe for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”) But it was activist Anna Maria Jarvis who held the first official celebration.
Anna Jarvis was born in Webster, West Virginia, on May 1, 1864. She was one of 14 children born to Granville and Ann Reeves Jarvis. Her father worked in mercantile business and real estate; her mother was superintendent of Sunday School at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church. One day in church, Anna overheard her mother say: “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will find a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life.”
When Ann Reeves Jarvis died on May 9, 1905, her daughter promised to do just that. According to the Encyclopedia of Motherhood, Anna Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day service at Andrew Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, on May 10, 1908. She chose the second Sunday in May to commemorate her mother’s death and chose her mother’s favorite flower (white carnations) to serve as a symbol. Jarvis sent 500 white carnations to be handed out at Andrews Methodist, where her mother had taught Sunday school.
That same day, Jarvis hosted a Mother’s Day celebration in the afternoon at Wanamaker store Auditorium in Philadelphia (which she had also organized, per the Encyclopedia). She soon began efforts to make it a nationwide holiday. According to the Wichita Eagle, “The campaign for an official Mother’s Day would slowly build, starting with proclamations by communities in West Virginia, then spreading to other cities and states. West Virginia made it a holiday in 1910. Jarvis, who started a group called Mother’s Day International Association Inc. (she was president), and others lobbied government officials by writing thousands of letters.”
The campaign worked. Every state observed the holiday by 1911. And on May 8, 1914, the U.S. Congress, in a joint resolution, established the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day. The next day, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation making Mother’s Day an official holiday. The document (a copy of which is in the Hallmark exhibit) urged Americans to display flags “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”
Jarvis thanked the president (“Your Excellency”) in a letter. Mother’s Day, she wrote, would be “a great Home Day of our country for sons and daughters to honor their mothers and fathers and homes in a way that will perpetuate family ties and give emphasis to true home life.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t how it turned out. Mother’s Day soon morphed into a commercialized occasion, with marketers and salesmen using the holiday to generate sales. Per the Eagle, businessman Joyce C. Hall was the founder of Hallmark; by 1915, his company had started making Christmas cards and valentines and soon branched out into making Mother’s Day cards. By the early 1920s, those cards were being sold, along with candy and carnations.
That was not what Jarvis wanted. “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,” Jarvis reportedly said. “And candy! You take a box to Mother – and then eat most of it yourself. A petty sentiment.”
According to the BBC, Jarvis didn’t care for selling flowers, either. “When the price of carnations rocketed, she released a press release condemning florists: “WHAT WILL YOU DO to rout charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?” By 1920, she was urging people not to buy flowers at all.
Jarvis started campaigning against the commercialization of the holiday. She crashed a candymakers’ convention in Philadelphia in 1923. Two years later, she was dragged away from a meeting of the American War Mothers, who were using Mother’s Day carnation sales to raise funds. (She was arrested for disturbing the peace.) She even filed lawsuits to prevent the use of her special day for commercial purposes. (Jarvis had trademarked the phrase “Mother’s Day” and the use of white carnations.)
This crusade drained Jarvis emotionally and financially. According to the Encyclopedia, she entered Pennsylvania’s Marshall Square Sanitarium — deaf and near-penniless — in 1943. She died there from heart failure in 1948. Jane Unkefer, one of her first cousins, said that Jarvis’ obsession with her cause cost her (and her family) a lot. “I don’t think they were very wealthy, but she totally ran through whatever money she had,” she told the BBC. “It’s embarrassing. I wouldn’t want people to think the family wasn’t caring for her, but she ended up in the equivalent of a pauper’s grave.”
The family initially avoided celebrating the holiday out of respect for Jarvis. “We really didn’t like Mother’s Day,” says Jane Unkefer. “And the reason we didn’t is that my mother, as a child, had heard a lot of negative things said about Mother’s Day.” But she confessed she has changed her mind about the celebration now. “Many generations later, I’ve forgotten all the negative things my mother ever said about it,” she said.
As a young mother Jane used to stop in front of a plaque honoring Mother’s Day in Philadelphia and think about Anna. “It’s a sort of a poignant story because there’s so much love in it,” says Jane. “And I think what has come out of it is a nice thing. People do remember their mom, just the way she would have wanted them to.”
According to the National Retail Foundation, Mother’s Day spending is expected to total $31.7 billion this year, up $3.6 billion from 2021’s record spending, according to the annual consumer survey released today by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. Approximately 84 percent of U.S. adults are expected to celebrate Mother’s Day.
Consumers will spend on average $25 more for Mother’s Day this year. Jewelry purchases and special outings such as dinner or brunch are driving this year’s spending increases, marking a record in the survey’s history for average spending in both categories. The commercial nature of Mother’s Day lives on, as evidenced by this humorous ad from creative agency Mother New York.