The Mother of Mother's Day

Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day, hated flowers, candy, and greeting cards. Our kind of mom!

By Mary Beth Crain

I’ve been trying to think of what I could give my 89-year-old mom for Mother’s Day. Flowers and candy seem just too trite. So do those distinctly unoriginal Mother’s Day cards with the flowers and butterflies and syrupy verse.

Little did I know that the founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, shared my sentiments exactly.

The three things highest on Jarvis’s hate list were flowers, candy and greeting cards.

"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,” she scolded. “And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment!"

Jarvis spent her life trying to get people to get it. Mother’s Day is a sacred commitment, not an annoying obligation to be fulfilled by fattening the pockets of the florists, the chocolatiers and Hallmark. “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?” she railed, in one of her many diatribes against the commercialization of the day she had envisioned as far more profound. “I wanted Mother’s Day,” she said, “to be a day of spiritual sentiment, not profit.”

Mother’s Day was Jarvis’s tribute to her own mother, Ann Marie Jarvis, a devout Christian and humanitarian, and loving mom to a brood of 11 kids. Anna, who was born in tiny little Webster, West Virginia in 1864, was only one year old when the Civil War ended, but its influence on her was undeniable. Her mother did volunteer and charity work during the war, helping widows and mothers with absentee husbands. Ann Marie Jarvis was pained to see how little these strong, overburdened women were appreciated. The seeds of Mother’s Day were planted one day in Sunday school, when Anna was 12 years old. Concluding a lesson on “Mothers of the Bible,” her mother said a small prayer.

"I hope that someone, sometime will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it."

This simple statement made such an impression on Anna that when her mother died in 1905, she made her a promise at the graveside service: “By the grace of God, you shall have that Mother’s Day.”

Two years later, on May 12, 1907, Anna held a memorial to her mother that became the official launching pad for her campaign to make Mother’s Day a recognized holiday. A tireless and compelling speaker, Anna went around the country castigating children young and old for not appreciating their mothers. She wrote hundreds of letters to politicians and other influential people, one of who was the department store mogul and philanthropist John Wanamaker of Philadelphia, who was so impressed with her cause that in 1908, Philadelphia became the first city to celebrate Mother’s Day. By 1909, 45 states were observing the day with services and the wearing of carnations, Ann Marie Jarvis’s favorite flower.

By 1911, Mother's Day was celebrated in almost every state of the Union. But it still had not become a national holiday. The big breakthrough came when Anna struck up a friendship with President Woodrow Wilson. In 1914, Wilson made Mother’s Day official, proclaiming it a national holiday to be held annually on the second Sunday of May.

But Anna Jarvis’s triumph was short-lived. Appalled at the commercial turn Mothers’ Day soon took, she embarked upon a new cause: going after the florist, candy, restaurant and other industries responsible for what she considered the desecration of her sacred day. She incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association and claimed copyright on the second Sunday of May. Her fanaticism even led her to jail, when, in 1925, she was arrested for trying to break up a meeting of mothers of martyred soldiers, who had usurped her trademark white carnation. Later she gained notoriety for lobbying against a Mother's Day stamp that featured Whistler's mother instead of her own!

Irony seemed to dog Anna Jarvis throughout her life. While she will always be known as the “Mother of Mother’s Day,” she herself remained unmarried and childless. Although by all rights she should have been comfortable and revered, she spent the family inheritance campaigning against the holiday she had devoted her life to creating. Blind, deaf and destitute, Anna spent her last days in a Pennsylvania mental institution. In the ultimate irony, it was the floral industry she so despised that secretly supported her until her death in 1948, at the age of 84. Her last public statement, made to a reporter, was basically an invalidation of her whole life. "She told me with great bitterness," he said, "that she was sorry she had ever started Mother's Day."

Well, I’m not. Even though, as my mother always reminds me, every day should be Mother’s Day, it’s still a great excuse to get together, honor mom, and have fun. Hazel and I will have lunch together and a nice drive, weather permitting. I refuse to brave the insane Mother’s Day restaurant crowds, but I’ve promised to take her to dinner a day or two later, when things have quieted down. I still haven’t decided what to get her, but then again, I figure the best gift is myself—my time, my love, and my appreciation, for all she’s done for me. Although I sort of know what she’d say to that. “Yes, Mary Beth, and a little jewelry wouldn’t hurt either!”

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Mary Beth Crain is SoMA's senior editor.

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