This Sunday, along with celebrating Mother’s Day with my mom, I will spend some time reflecting on the history of the holiday and the poignant story of its founder, Anna Marie Jarvis.
Anna Jarvis was one of a dozen children born to Granville and Ann Reeves Jarvis in the mid-1800s. Only four of the offspring survived to adulthood; the others succumbed to diseases including measles, diphtheria and typhoid fever. The tragic losses spurred Ann Reeves Jarvis to activism. She organized Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in her Appalachian community and surrounding towns, providing health education and assistance to families, even raising money to pay for medicine.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the clubs changed their focus to addressing the needs of both Confederate and Union soldiers. After the war ended, Ann Jarvis planned and produced a “Mothers Friendship Day,” a gathering of veterans from both sides and their families, to promote unity and healing. She and another social activist, Julia Ward Howe, advocated for the creation of a “Mother’s Day for Peace,” and in 1870, Ward Howe issued a proclamation calling upon mothers worldwide to join in the “amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
Inspired by her mother’s lifelong commitment to assist and honor mothers, Anna Jarvis dedicated herself to establishing Mother’s Day as a national holiday. She noted that the observance should be called “Mother’s” rather than “Mothers” or “Mothers’ “ Day, for each family to honor its own mother, rather than a generic commemoration of all mothers.
Her campaign began in earnest after the elder Jarvis’ death on May 9, 1905. Three years later, at the church where Ann Jarvis had taught Sunday school for several decades, the first Mother’s Day worship service was held. Anna Jarvis sent 500 white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower, for sons and daughters to wear in honor of their own mothers.
That same year, 1908, Congress considered and rejected a proposal to make Mother’s Day an official holiday. One senator mocked the idea as “absolutely absurd,” another took offense at the notion that the memory of his late mother “could only be kept green by some outward demonstration.” Undeterred, Jarvis continued her efforts across the country, with help from organizations like the World’s Sunday School Association and private backers including John Wanamaker and H.J. Heinz. By 1911, Mother’s Day was observed in all U.S. states, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as a national holiday to honor mothers.
The nation’s floral industry jumped on Jarvis’ bandwagon early on, providing her with funds and promotional opportunities. Before long, white carnations became an integral part of Mother’s Day celebrations, with florists selling out their stock in early May. The industry began promoting the practice of wearing white flowers of any kind to honor deceased mothers, and red flowers for living moms.
The commercialization of the holiday dismayed Jarvis. Around 1920, she turned against her former supporters, urging the public to stop buying flowers. Mother’s Day, she pleaded, should be “a day of sentiment, not profit.” She called florists, greeting card manufacturers and candymakers “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers.” To her, “a maudlin, insincere printed card means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.”
She threatened the floral industry with lawsuits and fought against charities that tied their fundraising efforts to Mother’s Day. In 1925, she was arrested for disturbing the peace at a meeting of the American War Mothers, where she tried to stop the group from selling white carnations. She eventually spent her family inheritance in futile efforts to rescind the holiday.
Anna Jarvis never married, never bore children herself. Her last years were spent in poverty and dementia, at a psychiatric asylum in Pennsylvania. She died in 1948, at the age of 84, unaware that her sanitarium bills had been paid, in gratitude and appreciation, by a group of florists.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM and KEWE 97.9 FM/1240 AM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.