“Norcross Greeting Card Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History”
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the first congressional resolution and presidential proclamation calling upon all citizens to display the national flag in honor of American mothers on the second Sunday in May. But the credit for the popularity of Mother’s Day belongs to Anna Jarvis, who organized the first official Mother’s Day services on the morning of May 10, 1908, in her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia, and later in the afternoon in her adopted hometown of Philadelphia. Thanks to Jarvis—who wrote annually to every state governor as well as to any local or national figure she believed could advance her holiday movement, from former president Theodore Roosevelt to the humorist Mark Twain—most states already hosted a Mother’s Day observance well before Wilson gave the holiday federal recognition.
The holiday may have had an easy birth, but not an easy transition to maturity.
Anna Jarvis designed the Mother’s Day celebration in honor of her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. As a young girl, she was inspired by a prayer she once overheard her mother give. “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,” Jarvis remembered her mother saying. “She is entitled to it.” Jarvis chose the second Sunday in May to mark the anniversary of her mother’s death and selected her mother’s favorite flower, the white carnation, as the holiday’s official emblem. Jarvis’ request for children to visit or write letters home on Mother’s Day reflected the significance she placed on her own correspondence with her mother.
As a single woman in her 40s, Jarvis viewed motherhood simply through the eyes of a daughter. Thus, she constructed a child-centered celebration of motherhood for Mother’s Day: a “thank-offering” from sons and daughters and the nation “for the blessing of good homes.” “This is not a celebration of maudlin sentiment,” she said. “It is one of practical benefit and patriotism, emphasizing the home as the highest inspiration of our individual and national lives.”
Commercial industries quickly recognized the marketability in Jarvis’ sentimental celebration of motherhood. Her themes became central to Mother’s Day advertising campaigns. The call to write tribute letters fueled the greeting card industry. The designation of the white carnation emblem energized the floral industry. Moreover, Jarvis’ own story as a daughter dedicated to fulfilling her departed mother’s greatest wish was better than anything a copywriter could invent.
But despite her calls to the nation to adopt her holiday, Jarvis considered it her intellectual and legal property, and not part of the public domain. She wished for Mother’s Day to remain a “holy day,” to remind us of our neglect of “the mother of quiet grace” who put the needs of her children before her own. She never intended for the observance to become, as she said, the “burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift-day” that other holidays had become by the early 20th century.
SOURCE: Smithsonian Magazine