The Surprisingly Sad Origins of Mother’s Day

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Perhaps it’s appropriate that the day on which Americans celebrate mothers has an odd set of parents: President Woodrow Wilson is usually seen as the “father” of Mother’s Day — for signing a proclamation on May 9, 1914, declaring the second Sunday of May “a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country” — while copywriter Anna Jarvis is usually seen as the “mother” of Mother’s Day, for creating the movement that led to the proclamation.

It was on May 10, 1908, that Jarvis sent 500 white carnations to Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in her hometown of Grafton, W.Va., in honor of her late mother Ann. That date, on which she also held a celebration in Philadelphia, where she lived at the time, is considered to be America’s first Mother’s Day celebration. In 2018, Mother’s Day will be marked on Sunday, May 13.

But Jarvis wasn’t the only person to try to start a holiday dedicated to mothers.

One notable person who might also have a claim to that fame: Jarvis’ own mother, had come up with such an idea in the mid-19th century. Her vision for Mother’s Day, however, looked very different from the gift-centric holiday of modern times.

It’s not that Anna Jarvis concealed the fact that she got the idea from her mother. As she spread the word about the holiday, she always traced it back to the moment when, in 1876, she heard her mother recite the following prayer after teaching a Sunday School lesson: “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.” When her mother died in 1905, she vowed to fulfill that dream.

Read more: How to Be There When Mother’s Day Isn’t Easy

But what the elder Jarvis had probably had in mind was something different than what her daughter eventually brought to reality. Evidence suggests that the original idea was for a “Mothers’ Day” — a day for mothers, plural, not a day for one’s own mother — on which mothers would get together for a day of service to help out other mothers who were less fortunate than they were, according to Katharine Lane Antolini, an assistant professor of history and gender studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College and author of Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for the Control of Mother’s Day.

Why would the elder Jarvis have focused her idea for a commemoration of motherhood on this idea of community service? The reason was a tragic one.

Her experience of motherhood had been infused with sadness. Of the 13 children that she bore, only four lived to adulthood. Her story was not uncommon; an estimated 15 to 30% of infants in that Appalachian region died before their first birthday throughout the 19th and early 20th century, largely due to epidemics that were spread by poor sanitary conditions, according to Antolini’s book. In 1858, while she was pregnant for the sixth time, Jarvis enlisted the help of her brother Dr. James Reeves, who was involved in treating victims of the typhoid fever epidemic, to try to improve the situation. They organized events at which doctors were invited to lead discussions with local mothers on the latest hygiene practices that could keep their children healthy. They called the events Mothers’ Day Work Clubs.

But when it came time for Jarvis to lead the charge for a national day for mothers, she left behind that idea of educating mothers. Perhaps it was because she was not a mother herself, Antolini suggests, and thus, “she couldn’t be a leader for a holiday that encourages mothers to be socially active.”

In addition, she may have thought a more uplifting tone would be easier to market broadly. “She didn’t want it to be turned into a beggars’ day,” says Antolini. “She thought even poor mothers were rich if they had their kids’ love.”

Read more: The Memories That Sustain Me on Mother’s Day

As the popularity of the holiday spread, several other people came forward to claim they had been the first to start celebrating mothers.

For example, around the same time Ann Jarvis started Mother’s Day Work Clubs to stop babies from dying prematurely, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” writer Julia Ward Howe had started a “Mother’s Peace Day,” inspired by the Civil War and subsequent Franco-Prussian War, on which mothers supported antiwar efforts so that their sons wouldn’t die prematurely. And city leaders of Henderson, Ky., argued that Mary Towels Sasseen should get credit for starting a day to honor mothers all the way back in 1887, at which point Sasseen was a 24-year-old school principal. She would even curate a book of songs, poems and readings for schools that wanted to organize tributes to mothers. And if you asked the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the organization would say Mother’s Day started in 1904 with its member Frank Hering, a football coach and Notre Dame faculty member, who required students to write a note to their mothers once a month.

Antolini notes that some historians also point out the paradoxical timing of Jarvis’ version of Mother’s Day taking hold at the beginning of the 20th century: people had been talking about the idea for decades, but the holiday got national attention just at a time when more women were beginning to get jobs outside the home, and some experts see the embrace of a celebration of motherhood as a backlash against that change.

Read more: On Losing a Mom, Then Becoming One

In any case, when it came to championing the idea, Jarvis proved that she definitely deserved the credit. Her advertising background probably helped, Antolini argues. By 1912, she had quit her job in the industry and started Mother’s Day International Association. Partnerships with florists and a successful letter-writing campaign to state governors helped the holiday get recognized at the state and eventually federal level.

And for someone who started such a happy day, her life ended in a sad way. Her Mother’s Day campaign was funded primarily by her inheritance, and she came to resent the the fact that florists and candy makers were making lots of money from the idea without crediting her. Jarvis came to feel that the day was being used as “a means of profiteering,” as the New York Times reported on May 18, 1923.

Antolini believes that fighting with other people for full credit for starting Mother’s Day was a key factor in Jarvis eventually ending up “broke, blind, and in a sanitarium.”

She died in 1948, and was buried next to her mother.

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