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  • Jan Flynn

How a Grieving Daughter Created Mother’s Day

And why she later tried to get it abolished

Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay

In 1876, at the age of 12, Anna Jarvis attended her mother’s Sunday school

She listened raptly to the stories of mothers from the Bible, and particularly as her mother, Anne Reeves Jarvis, uttered a simple, fervent prayer:

“I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”

Born in 1832, Anne Reeves Jarvis bore twelve children, or thirteen depending on some sources. But the records agree that of all those babies she brought into the world, only four survived to adulthood.

Anna was one of those who did, and she was devoted to her mother. Her deep attachment to her mother not only continued after her mother’s death in 1905 but became the driving purpose of her life. We have Anna Jarvis to thank for the second Sunday in May being recognized in every state in the U.S. as Mother’s Day.

It took Anna Jarvis years of determined effort before President Woodrow Wilson officially recognized the holiday in 1914. Mother’s Day was her crowning achievement — until it became what she saw as an abomination, a grossly commercialized perversion that she became desperate to see abolished.

In her mother’s lifetime, losing multiple children to disease was not uncommon

But Anne Reeves Jarvis, Anna’s mother, transformed the devastation of her losses into action. In the years prior to the Civil War, she recruited other women and formed a system of Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in West Virginia.

Their mission was to combat the unhealthful living conditions that caused crowd diseases to spread and that killed so many infants. With the support of local physicians, her clubs raised money for the poor and sought to provide clean drinking water and safe sewage disposal.

The Mothers’ Day Work Clubs also raised money to aid families afflicted by tuberculosis, rampant at the time and a leading cause of death among both children and adults.

When the Civil War broke out, Anna’s mother continued her work

West Virginia was deeply divided by the war, but Mrs. Jarvis was determined that her work clubs would remain neutral, even as the war claimed five more of her children’s lives, probably through disease. She and the women who worked with her nursed wounded and ailing soldiers whether they fought for the Union or the Confederacy.

After the war, Mrs. Jarvis kept up her commitment to solidarity and healing. She organized a bold event — Mothers’ Friendship Day — in West Virginia, bringing together veterans from both sides of the conflict. The day reportedly began tensely but ended with former foes shaking hands and weeping together.

Anna Jarvis never forgot her mother’s Sunday school prayer

She said years later, “This heartrending, agonizing prayer burned its way into my mind and heart so deeply, and it never ceased to burn.”

Anna Jarvis never married or had children of her own. Often described in the press as a “spinster” with all the negative connotations that term carried, Anna was a remarkable woman in her own right.

Intelligent, opinionated, and economically independent — she worked for an insurance company in Philadelphia where she was the first woman to hold the position of literary and advertising editor — she was bereft when her mother died on May 9, 1905.

According to one source, Anna’s brother Claude said of Anna’s distress at the funeral:

“My sister Lillian and myself were standing beside the open grave on the side. As the bishop said, ‘Dust to dust, ashes to ashes,’ Anna broke out in a heartbreaking cry and said, ‘Mother, that prayer made in our little church in Grafton calling for someone, somewhere, sometime to found a memorial to mother’s day — the time and place is here, and the someone is your daughter. And by the grace of God, you shall have your Mother’s Day.’”

Katharine Lane Antolini, a professor of history at West Virginia Wesleyan College and the author of Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day, is perhaps today’s authority on the story behind the holiday.

By 1907, Anna was coordinating Mother’s Day observances in West Virginia and Philadelphia. Unlike her mother’s concept of a day to recognize all mothers and their contribution to others’ welfare, Anna’s vision was more focused on the mother’s role in the home. Her motto for the holiday was “For the Best Mother who Ever Lived — Your Mother.”

The white carnation had been Mrs. Jarvis’ favorite flower. At the first Mother’s Day observance, three years after her mother’s death, Anna gave a white carnation to every mother who attended — reportedly hundreds of them.

In a possibly romanticized vision of motherhood, Anna Jarvis wrote,

“The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying.”

The popularity of Mother’s Day grew year by year

Thanks to Anna’s tireless efforts at letter writing and promotion, the second Sunday in May (so chosen because it would always be close to May 9, the date of her mother’s death), was declared a state holiday in West Virginia in 1910. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson designated Mother’s Day a national holiday.

But there was another reason why the holiday was so quick to catch on — one that might seem obvious to us today, but which Anna Jarvis didn’t see coming.

It was a commercial goldmine.

Greeting card companies and confectioners were quick to capitalize on Mother’s Day. As for florists, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, you couldn’t “beg, borrow or steal a carnation” in the week before the holiday.

To say this bothered Anna Jarvis is a vast understatement. Incensed at the skyrocketing price of carnations, she issued a thundering press release:

“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 a boycott of all florists. She became enough of a thorn in the side of the floral industry that she was offered money, which she staunchly refused to take. Of all the interested parties surrounding Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis seems to be the only one who never profited from it.

Idealist or idealogue?

Anna’s single-minded resolve to keep Mother’s Day true to her original vision was admirable but could veer into obsession. She devoted herself so thoroughly to publicizing an official holiday program each year, complete with a personal message and suggested music and Scripture readings for services, that she quit her job with the insurance company.

In a move that today would be applauded as branding, she incorporated the Mother’s Day International Association and trademarked a Mother’s Day Seal, which included the words “Second Sunday in May” and “Anna Jarvis, Founder.”

Note the individual, rather than general, possessive in “mother’s” with the apostrophe deliberately placed after the “r” and not the “s.” Not only did Anna see Mother’s Day as a personal observance, a chance to pay homage to one’s own mother, not everybody’s mother, but she was wary of imposters who promoted “Mothers’ Day.

Considering how eager commercial interests were to cash in, she wasn’t wrong to be wary. But her zeal could be seen as naive and eccentric, and as time went on she was often either discounted or portrayed as a crackpot. In 1923 she threatened to sue the New York Mother’s Day Committee — which finally caved and canceled its big planned celebration.

It offended her mightily when interest groups used the holiday to support political causes — including women’s suffrage and health campaigns.

In 1925 Jarvis was charged with disorderly conduct for her protest against the American War Mothers because they used a white carnation as their Mother’s Day symbol.

In 1935 she took issue with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s fundraiser that combined Mother’s Day with an appeal to end high maternal and infant mortality rates.

By the early1940s Jarvis had spent so much on legal battles — at one time she is said to have had 33 separate Mother’s Day-associated lawsuits pending — that she was nearly destitute. She moved in with her vision-impaired sister Lillie and spent some of her last years going door to door in Philadelphia, urging citizens to sign a petition to have Mother’s Day rescinded.

Needless to say, her efforts to ban Mother’s Day failed

It’s a matter of speculation as to whether Anna Jarvis’ stress and frustration over what had become of her holiday tilted her into mental illness, whether cognitive decline played a role, or if she was merely impoverished, aged, and in ill health. In any case, at the age of 80 she was committed to a sanatorium where she remained until her death  in 1948.

But Mother’s Day lives on, and it’s a commercial hit.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent $31.7 billion on Mother’s Day in 2022, up $3.6 billion from the year before. The top three gift categories were greeting cards, flowers, and special outings.

It’s no mystery what Anna Jarvis would think of what has become of the holiday she worked so hard to establish, and then worked even harder to dismantle. She and her vision for a restrained and private observance are largely forgotten.

But this Mother’s Day, if you’re toasting your mom with mimosas at brunch or sending her a bouquet of overpriced flowers  (at least you could send a card), you might take a moment to reflect on the holiday’s true origins.

It began with a daughter’s enduring love for her mother. And what mother could ask for a greater tribute?

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