The Creator of Mother’s Day Spent Her Life Fighting It

Anna Jarvis spent her life combating the day’s commercialism, disrupting candy conventions, hounding public officials—fighting her baby to save it.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

It’s Mother’s Day, the world’s most popular non-religious holiday. Perhaps you shopped before May 1, getting 25 percent off at the Bath & Body Works Website using the code JUSTPEACHY. Perhaps you splurged on a Ralph Lauren Ricky Bag for $18,500—or are taking Mom to brunch at the Waldorf Astoria for $125 per adult. Maybe you’re buying Kentucky Fried chicken, charmed by KFC’s creepy ad promising to fulfill “Mom’s fantasies.”

Doesn’t matter—you’ve violated the holiday’s founding spirit. After founding Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis spent the rest of her life—and fortune—crusading against the conspicuous consumption that characterizes this holiday.

This Saturnalia of shopping, brunching, Hallmark-card-sending, flower-delivering, and now, online love bombing, began in humbler times with simple white carnations and sincere expressions of love.

Mother’s Day formally began on May 10, 1908, when Anna Jarvis honored her late mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, and at a Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. Clearly, the holiday always offered maternal love American style: fusing nobility and vulgarity, piety, and materialism.

Anna Jarvis was honoring her late mother’s attempts to honor mothers. Inspired by other aristocratic American women social reformers before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis had launched “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” in West Virginia. After the Civil War, these clubs teaching moms how to be moms helped heal the war’s wounds.

In 1868, Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” uniting Union and Confederate veterans through their shared love of their mothers. The elder Jarvis was building on a tradition with classical and Christian roots, especially the European “Mothering Sunday” on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

Two years later, the upper-crust crusader who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” issued a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” to bring glory, glory and a whole heap of hallelujahs to mothers. Julia Ward Howe proposed an annual “Mother’s Peace Day.”

“Arise, all women who have hearts…,” she proclaimed. “Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.’” Instead, Howe proposed “let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.”

Momma Jarvis died in 1905. In 1908, her daughter Anna Jarvis wanted to honor her mother’s memory. Jarvis shifted her mother’s apostrophe—from speaking about mothers’ in the possessive plural to mother’s. The holiday would be personal, not communal, “In honor of the best mother who ever lived—Your mother.”

Jarvis wanted the day celebrated simply, with contemplation, commendations, and white carnations. Jarvis loved the carnation’s “whiteness, which stands for purity; its form and fragrance, representing beauty and love; its wide field of growth and lasting qualities, symbolizing charity and faithfulness—all a true mother’s qualities.”

Two years later, in 1910, West Virginia became the first of what ultimately became many states declaring a properly punctuated Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May. As momentum built, one oddity emerged. The Mother’s Day “celebration assumed its most significant aspect in the state prisons and penitentiaries,” the Florida Star reported. Inmates received carnations on that day in Leavenworth, Cherry Hill, Sing Sing, as “prisons lost not a little of their sordidness, and hearts that had not been otherwise accessible were touched, maybe only for the instant in some cases…”

On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the first national Mother’s Day, honoring mothers whose sons died in battle. The national holiday reflected Progressivism’s beautifying and nationalizing impulses. Today’s 133 million Hallmark card-selling, $20 billion marketing behemoth had begun.

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“All mothers are holy, poor as well as rich,” reporters rhapsodized, as happy back then to gush sentimentality as today’s reporters are to sling cynicism. Echoing these democratic sentiments, the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Abram Simon praised Wilson’s proclamation in 1914, hailing this new holiday for knowing “no creed, no distinction of wealth or position; its spirit… is universal.”

Identifying the first challenge to the holiday’s credibility, Dr. Simon observed that Mother’s Day is “a woman’s creation, but it must become a man’s institution.” In a land of growing national bureaucracies, the Mother’s Day International Association formed, with local committees, state committees, and a national advisory committee. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, offered his macho blessing, saying: “Mothers are more important to the country than the soldier, the literary man, the man of science.”

These toasts hail the devout, democratic, dedicated mother. They reflect the way men placed women on pedestals in the days of what historians call “the Separate Spheres”—while ensnaring them in webs of obligations and expectations that bound women to their husbands, their children, their families, their communities, society’s conventions. Today, thanks to feminism, mothers are freer to “lean in,” bust out, kick back, to be themselves.

Yet these ties that bound, often painfully, also sustained, like lifelines. Without returning to those bad old days, must we take the whole package of today’s not-so-good days? KFC celebrates Mother’s Day with an admittedly tongue-in-cheek ad evoking a steamy stud as delectable to Mom as their chicken is to her family. But who wants to scarf down fried fowl with your mother, while imagining her fantasizing about Fifty Shades of Shake and Bake? Kraft boosts Mac & Cheese with a campaign joking about the 74 percent of mothers who curse in front of their children, proclaiming “Here’s to swearing like a mother.” What happened to role modeling?

Delicacy, artifice, restraint, discipline, have their place. Individuals without freedom cannot breathe; but individuals without restraints cannot catch their breaths and build anything constructive. Beyond giving life, mothers are children’s primary socializing agent. This Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate the discipline and values Moms instill, not just the life and liberties they deliver.

Anna Jarvis lived long enough to see the holiday honoring “the best mother who ever lived”—her mother—become an institution. But the American crassness sullying the holiday’s purity disgusted her. She spent the rest of her life combating the day’s commercialism, disrupting candy conventions, hounding public officials, squandering her inheritance; fighting her baby to save it.

Eventually, this unmarried, stubborn, opinionated force of nature received the Mary Todd Lincoln treatment for overly assertive Victorian women—dying in a sanitarium in 1948. Scholars debate whether committing her reflected the sexist response to a female powerhouse or the necessary treatment for a tortured soul.

Nevertheless, Anna Jarvis, this motherless mother of Mother’s Day who never became a mother understood something profound we should remember: a valueless society that only values valuables will ultimately lose its value as a community.

For Further Reading:

Katharine Lane Antolini, ed., Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day (2014)

L. Wayne Sheets, Mother’s Day—The Legacy of Anna Jarvis (2013)