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The Contradictory Origins of Mother’s Day
How a call for social action became a patriotic holiday, then turned into a multibillion-dollar industry.
In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson approved the resolution designating the second Sunday in May Mother’s Day1, but the roots of the American holiday can be traced back decades earlier. First conceived by activists including suffragists, pacifists and other community leaders during the Civil War to acknowledge and honor the civic contributions of mothers outside the home, by the early 20th century “Mothers’ Day” evolved into “Mother’s Day,” an occasion to celebrate our own mothers and appreciate their contributions within the home.
Along the way, shifting notions of the role of women in society and the meaning of “motherhood” emerged – sometimes in contradictory ways. We’ll explore complementary resources – including, unexpectedly, the Trench Journals from World War I – that open up unique research avenues and uncover unusual research insights about Mother’s Day, now the “second highest gift-giving day behind Christmas and a multibillion-dollar industry for retailers,” according to the dissertation, Memorializing Motherhood2 which provides a comprehensive entrée into this subject.
The radical roots of Mothers’ Day
While Anna Jarvis is commonly credited with starting Mother’s Day in the 20th century, it was her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who first introduced the concept in 1858. Reeves Jarvis envisioned a “Mothers’ Day” – plural possessive – “built upon the collective strength women gained through their shared maternal experiences,” Katharine Lane Antolini wrote in her dissertation, Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for the Control of Mother’s Day.
“Sadly, maternal grief dominated the expanse of Ann Reeves Jarvis’ child-bearing years,” Antolini explained, as over the course of 20 years Reeves Jarvis buried nine children, lost to causes which were likely preventable. Her devastating experiences drew her “to collective action by appealing to a mother’s duty to safeguard her family.”
Reeves Jarvis organized Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, dedicated to what she saw as mothers’ civic duty to promote parental education, improvements in sanitary conditions and the prevention of communicable diseases – efforts that could help other families avoid the suffering which afflicted her own.
In 1861, the services of the Mothers’ Day Work Clubs were called upon by a Union military general as measles and typhoid epidemics ripped through encampments on both sides of the Civil War. “[Reeves Jarvis] agreed to help,” Antolini wrote, “but with the stipulation that all soldiers would receive the women’s assistance regardless of the color of their uniforms.” At the end of the war, the Mothers’ Day Work Groups continued their work with soldiers, promoting peace and healing among embittered veterans returning home.
The war also had a profound impact on poet and suffragist Julia Ward Howe, who penned the lyrics to for “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in response to what she saw as “preventable evil,” according to Antolini. Unlikely aware of Reeves Jarvis’ Mothers’ Day organizations, Howe – envisioning a peace movement –sought to promote the social duties of motherhood and in 1870 published her “Mother’s Day Proclamation3,” also known as “An Appeal to Women Around the World.”
This document called upon mothers (and wives) to advocate for peace as a part of their duty to nurture and protect their children. Also written at a time when infant mortality and death from childhood diseases were high (Ward, like Reeves Jarvis, was at least in part motivated by the death of her own small child), the document implored women who had suffered such loss to take action in the prevention of further death and suffering among “the great human family.”
“Arise, then, women of this day!” the proclamation began, “Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!” and continues:
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience.
We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.
From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"
In 1872, Ward declared June 2nd Mothers’ Day, but the effort gained little momentum. On the first anniversary of the observance, The New York Times4 included a brief about a “mother’s peace meeting” held in honor of the occasion. The event was attended by a “small audience” who sang several hymns and listened to talks on topics such as “Higher Scientific Education Needful for Full Development” and “The War Spirit” “which advocated the abolition of standing armies and war armaments, and the substitution of a system of universal peaceful arbitration.”
Mother’s Day as a patriotic holiday
While that version of Mothers’ Day soon fizzled out, nearly 40 years later another vision emerged. After the death of Reeves Jarvis, her daughter Ann Jarvis proposed a national holiday inspired by the life and sacrifices of her own mother. She encouraged others to honor their mothers as the source of love and comfort within the home as well.
Antolini pointed out that Jarvis’ movement to celebrate motherhood not as a political force but as a symbol of domesticity unfolded at a pivotal period in American culture. “Historians who address the issue of Mother’s Day note the significance of its timing, portraying the holiday’s veneration of motherhood and domesticity as an obvious backlash against the expanding public roles of women at the turn of the century.”
In 1908, when Jarvis first proposed a Mother’s Day, the fight for women’s suffrage and their labor rights resulted in often violent rifts throughout the country. From this perspective, Antolini continued, it could be viewed as an effort to “reaffirm traditional gender roles by glorifying women’s maternal roles within the family.”
And the nation seemed to clamor for it. Following that inaugural Mother’s Day in West Virginia, observations were held in forty-four additional U.S. states. By 1911, observances were held in Canada, Mexico, South America, Africa, China and Japan. The push for Congress to officially designate the second Sunday in May a holiday waged on, often controversially. Critics opposed the “maudlin sentimentalism” of it, Antolini wrote, and “many questioned the new holiday’s relevancy as a tribute to modern motherhood” in the midst of “social upheaval brought on by industrial and urban expansion.”
When a Mother’s Day resolution first appeared in front of Congress in 1908 it was treated as joke, according to a New York Times5 article, “[o]n the ground that it might let down the legislative bars to special days in honor of ‘sisters and the cousins and the aunts,’ of its members.”
Regardless, the popularity of Mother’s Day continued to surge. In 1912, Jarvis trademarked the name “Mother’s Day” and the symbols associated with it, such as the white carnation, “thereby marking the observance as her sole intellectual and legal property,” according to Antolini. Jarvis insisted on giving approval for all Mother’s Day celebrations, down to the nitty details including which foods were served. To those who did not adhere to her strict guidelines, Jarvis asked that they not observe the day at all.
President Woodrow Wilson finally signed a Mother’s Day resolution in 1914 and “issued a proclamation that all flags be displayed in observance of the occasion,” reported The New York Times6 “as a public expression,” in Wilson’s own words, “of our love and reverence for mothers of our country.” Jarvis embraced this patriotic element of Mother’s Day in her fierce promotion of the holiday, and the start of World War I provided a unique opportunity stir up nostalgia of home and mother’s love.
By 1919, a year after the U.S. declared war on Germany, journals and magazines written and published in trenches contained numerous appeals to the wistful, weary troops to remember their moms. “The mothers have been the real sufferers during the world war,” one article declared in The Bayonet7, and called upon troops to wear a white flower and raise the flag in their honor.
“YOU are asked to pay your tribute to through affectionate gratitude…[to] make your mother feel she is ‘Queen of May’ in your heart,” Jarvis herself wrote in an article featured by many of these publications, including Trench and Camp8.
“A man without mother-respect in his heart,” she continued, rather doomily, “is next to a man without a country. Before it is too late, do the things for your mother that will always be a happy remembrance for you and her.”
The Legacy of Anna Jarvis and Mother’s Day
Over the next several decades, Jarvis waged a war of her own. Maintaining such tight control of her holiday proved impossible and she spent the rest of her career in battle with the industries, including candy-makers, florists and card companies, that she saw exploiting Mother’s Day for profit.
According to her 1948 obituary in The New York Times9, “so intense were her efforts, that she ignored looming financial trouble” and her “finances became an almost hopeless muddle.”
“A militant, outspoken woman,” The Times described her, “she was embittered in late years, however, because too many sons bought printed cards to send their mothers, instead of writing.”
And maybe Jarvis was onto something. Skimming through the ProQuest search results for “Mother’s Day gifts 2018” demonstrates how much pressure there is on the modern consumer to find the ideal gift for mom.
At the same time, it also reveals some quirky ways to celebrate moms that could only be possible in the contemporary world. Suggestions for Mother’s Day 2018 published by PR Newswire range from heart-shaped bagels from Einstein Bros. and “Tim-bit” donut hole bouquets from Tim Hortons to “a new welding machine,” as women are reportedly developing more interest in the trade. Who knew?
For further research:
ProQuest Dissertations and These Global is super helpful in uncovering existing research on the topic of motherhood and Mother’s Day, whether you are getting started and need to find a direction to initiate your own research journey or if you are digging in more depth for an existing research project.
ProQuest Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War are always full of surprises. While it might not be the first place you think to look for insights on a subject like Mother’s Day, it is searchable on the ProQuest platform at institutions with access. This means related content surfaces in a basic search, resulting in serendipitous discovery. Also check out ProQuest History Vault for complementary primary source content for more scope and context on the First World War.
ProQuest Historical Newspapers are invaluable for tracing the evolution of the roles of women, mothers and motherhood around the world, across the nation and in specific regions, especially in relation to other concurrent events, such as women’s suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights and the women’s movement.
- Presidential Proclamation No. 1268. Available in Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations from ProQuest Congressional.
- Antolini, K. L. (2010). Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother's Day (Order No. 3420356). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and These Global.
- Julia, W. H. (1999, 05). Mother’s Day Proclamation, 1870. Peacework, , 17. Available from ProQuest Central.
- THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF "MOTHER'S DAY." (1874, Jun 03). New York Times (1857-1922). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Special to The New,York Times. (1908, May 10). AGAINST A MOTHERS' DAY. New York Times (1857-1922). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- THIS IS MOTHERS' DAY. (1914, May 10). New York Times (1857-1922). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- MOTHER'S DAY. (1919, May 09). The Bayonet, 3, 4. Available from ProQuest Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War.
- Jarvis, A. (1919, May 05). YOUR MOTHER'S DAY. Trench and Camp: Edition for Camp Grant, Rockford, Ill., 2, 6. Available from ProQuest Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War.
- Special to The New York Times (1948, Nov 25). ANNA JARVIS DEAD; HONORED MOTHERS. New York Times (1923-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- (2018, May 07). PR Newswire (Available from ProQuest Central.):
- Einstein Bros.® Bagels Shows Love For Moms with Heart-Shaped Bagels on Mother's Day.
- Mother's Day Just Got sweeter! Tim Hortons® Announces Timbits® Bouquets.
- Perhaps the perfect gift for mom is a new welding machine.