Mother’s Day, A Day Not Invented by Hallmark

This is the bizarre story of the creator of Mother’s Day.

In the United States, it is the third most popular day for card exchanges behind Christmas and Valentine’s Day. It is the most popular day for dining out and more phone calls are made on this day than any other. Mother’s Day is without a doubt a highly commercialized celebration of the women who brought us into this world, and its founder, Anna Jarvis, spent the end of her life trying to abolish it.

Ann Reeves Jarvis was a remarkable woman by all accounts. She held Mother’s Day work clubs that taught local women the proper way to care for their children, which included improving sanitary conditions, fighting diseases and curbing milk contamination. During the Civil War, she cared for the wounded on both sides of the conflict. After the war, when the country was still very much divided, she organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” which gathered mothers from the north and the south to promote reconciliation.

Ann Reeves Jarvis sadly passed away in 1905, and her daughter, Anna Jarvis, was devastated. She would re-read sympathy cards sent to her and underline all the words that praised and complemented her dear departed mother.

To channel the feelings of devastation and infatuation associated with her deceased mother, Anna wanted to organize a day to celebrate all mothers everywhere, not just her own (possibly because a day to honor just Anna’s mother would be considered a bit peculiar). On May 10, 1908, the first Mother’s Day events were held at both the Wanamaker’s department store auditorium in Philadelphia, where Anna resided, and the church where Anna’s mother taught Sunday school in Grafton, West Virginia. Anna, unable to attend the event in Grafton, sent 500 white carnations (her mother’s favorite flower) to the church to be worn by the children as a way to honor their mothers. This simple, sweet gesture would be an act Anna would come to regret in the years to come.

Through Anna’s ardent letter writing and promotional campaigning, the majority of the United States was celebrating Mother’s Day by 1913. A year later, despite the idea of a national holiday to celebrate mothers being mocked by several politicians, President Woodrow Wilson sanctioned the second Sunday in May to officially become “Mother’s Day” throughout the country.

Because of Anna’s initial gesture to include white carnations in the first celebration, the floral industry was bombarded with requests for that particular flower every second Sunday in May. Initially, Anna accepted donations from the floral industry and even spoke at their events. However, it soon became obvious to Anna that the floral industry, the greeting card companies, and the confectioners were no longer just about the business of honoring the nation’s mothers.

By 1920, Anna did a complete about-face. To her, Mother’s Day was “to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” Those who profited from the day were “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the nest, noblest, and truest movements and celebrations.” Anna’s crusade to abolish Mother’s Day became much more intense than her campaign to create it. Some of her shenanigans are as follows:

  • In 1923, she protested a confectioner’s convention in Philadelphia.
  • In 1925, Anna crashed a meeting of the “American War Mothers” in an attempt to stop the sales of white carnations (which were being sold as a fundraising device). She was arrested for disturbing the piece and dragged out kicking and screaming.

• In another attempt to cease the sale of white carnations, Anna made thousands of celluloid buttons featuring the flower and sent them, free of charge, to women’s schools and church groups.
• Anna threatened the floral industry with several lawsuits and even submitted a trademark application that combined the words “Mother’s Day” with the carnation. She was denied. In fact, in response to her legal threats, the Floral Telegraph Delivery (FTD) association offered her a commission on the sales of Mother’s Day carnations. This only infuriated Anna further.
• Anna publicly attacked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities that worked to combat the high infant mortality rates – the very kind of work Anna’s mother did.
• In 1934, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in honor of Mother’s Day. James McNeil Whistler’s famous painting, colloquially called “Whistler’s Mother” was used as the image. However, a vase of carnations was added to the lower left hand corner of the piece. Anna was livid. She was convinced those damn flowers were added solely to advertise the floral industry.

On November 24, 1948, at the age of 84, while living at Philadelphia’s Marshall Square Sanitarium, Anna passed away. She had never married and was childless. She had become a recluse and hoarder, living penniless and suffering from dementia. Unbeknownst to Anna and despite her complete hatred of the floral industry, Anna’s bill for her lengthy stay at the sanitarium was paid in part by a group of grateful florists.

Jill Marie Hoffman
Editor, writer, producer and actor.

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