If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother
Aside from being known as the start of nasty-little-black-flies month, this, the second Sunday in May, is by tradition and proclamation Mother’s Day. In this country it’s a commercial event of staggering financial proportions that has held the nation’s pocketbook in its grip for more than 100 years. It’s this way now, but it wasn’t this way in the beginning.
The initial seed for honoring our mothers was sown before the Civil War. Ann Jarvis, of Taylor County, West Virginia, had 13 children; four of them actually made it to adulthood. In 1858, with her physician brother, she created Mother’s Day Work Clubs, whose members addressed public health issues and provided assistance and education to families in the Appalachians in response to the high infant mortality rate caused by unsanitary conditions and childhood disease. Declaring neutrality during the Civil War, the work clubs also nursed wounded and sick Union and Confederate soldiers. Ann Jarvis worked tirelessly for peace, unity, reconciliation, community and, in the end, a day to honor mothers. She died in 1905.
In 1872 Julia Ward Howe, a powerful suffragette who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” took up the cause. Tired of, most recently, the Franco-Prussian War, she appealed to women at home and abroad to oppose war and support disarmament. She asked that June 21, 1872, be recognized as a “Mother’s Day for Peace,” in which mothers of all nationalities come together to promote the “amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” A strong and salient quest for World Peace at its best, though not, it turns out, one for a national day to honor mothers.
In 1907, Ann Jarvis’ daughter, Anna, took up the Mother’s Day mission. A single, childless advertising industry professional, she picked up the thread, this time giving Mother’s Day a liturgical bent. On May 10, 1908, she sent 500 white carnations to the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia, in honor of her mother. (Today, white carnations represent deceased mothers; red living.) She then embarked on a mission to make Mother’s Day officially recognized as a holiday, ultimately succeeding when President Woodrow Wilson signed a congressional resolution on May 9, 1914, officially making the second Sunday in May Mother’s Day, “a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”
The new holiday gained world-wide recognition. Today, more than 40 countries celebrate annually their mothers, mothers-in-law, step-mothers and grandmothers, some under the guise of religion, others the culmination of heritage and history.
In the United States, the new holiday gained the attention of commercial enterprises, and florists, greeting-card shops, and candy shops took advantage of the celebration, hoisting Mother’s Day, along with Christmas and Easter, to the top of the profiteering heap. Anna Jarvis believed that her Mother’s Day should be sentimental, not profitable, and she proceeded to boycott her own holiday, threatening lawsuits against the commercial interests and insisting that mothers should be appreciated and honored through hand-made cards, letters, and gifts. She went broke doing so, and died penniless in a West Chester, Pennsylvania sanitarium. The floral and greeting-card industries paid her bills.
Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church was incorporated as the International Mother’s Day Shrine on May 15, 1962 and designated a National Historic Landmark on October 5, 1992; Anna Jarvis’s birthplace in Taylor County, West Virginia was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The first American Mother’s Day celebration was May 10, 1908. Happy Mother’s Day.