100 years later: How Mother’s Day has changed


Throw out the chocolates and forget the cards.

Throw out the chocolates and forget the cards.

That’s, at least, what Mother’s Day creator Anna Jarvis would have wanted.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of when President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation naming Mother’s Day a national holiday. Like all holidays, Mother’s Day has certainly evolved from its original purpose envisioned by Jarvis, a suffragette who never had child herself, in the early 20th century. For the holiday’s centennial celebration, The News spoke to Andrew Phillips, curator of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, to learn more about its origins.

The Mother of Mother’s Day

The real story of Mother’s Day, said Phillips, starts with Anna Jarvis’ mother, Anne Maria Jarvis.

Anne Marie Jarvis, the daughter of a pastor who was religious throughout her life, had 12 children, but only four survived until adulthood. During the Civil War, Anne Marie started the Mother’s Day Work Club, which tended to wounded soldiers on both sides during the Civil War in West Virginia.

Anne Marie’s involvement in women’s rights grew from her time in the Mother’s Day Work Club and she eventually became a minor, but important figure nationally while raising her family in Grafton, West Virginia.

“Once slavery has been defeated in the civil war, many of them (women) felt very proud of themselves and a lot of them turned to the next injustice and that is the fact that women couldn’t vote,” he said.

Unfortunately, Anne Marie Jarvis died in 1905, before West Virginia recognized women’s votes with the rest of the country in 1920. Heavily influenced by her mother’s dedication to women’s rights, Anna Jarvis almost most immediately began planning a way to honor her mother after her death, as well as to further the broader goals of the suffrage movement.

In 1907, Anna Jarvis held a meeting in Philadelphia where she and a group of other women first discussed the idea of Mother’s Day.

“It’s not just the vote. It’s about rights and property,” Phillips said.

“The initial idea (of Mother’s Day) is a much more radical one than we think of today.”

National recognition

At first, Phillips said the holiday was largely confined to women’s groups who shared the same sense of social justice as Jarvis. Slowly, though, it spread through West Virginia. The first official Mother’s Day service was in 1908 at Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in West Virginia, where Jarvis gave out about 500 white carnations, chosen because they were her mother’s favorite flower. The early church celebrations of Mother’s Day best represented Jarvis’ goal, as they was one of spirituality, action and reverence.

“The holiday now is very personal...but Anna’s view was of a much broader holiday that was honoring mothers as a whole and looking for ways to better their position and better their status in this society along with all other women,” Phillips said.

“It’s a day of contemplation and advocacy and that’s what she takes to the public.”

West Virginia made Mother’s Day official in 1911 and in 1912, only four years after the holiday’s conception, the Methodist Conference of Ministers proclaimed it a religious holiday. In the following years, Phillips said the idea continued to spread across the country. As it spread, however, Mother’s Day became diluted by politicians attracted to the feel-good quality of the holiday.

“They are viewing it as a way to express patriotism and promote social values and family stability...those sort of buzz words that politicians talk about now,” said Phillips.

“They are not viewing it so much as Anna would have wanted them too.”

In 1913, Congress passed a law requiring all federal employees to wear a white carnation in observance of Mother’s Day. The following year, in May 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation declaring the first national Mother’s Day — to be celebrated by showing the flag. Phillips said the proclamation includes strong indications the holiday signed into law was far different from the one she started.

“It’s pretty clear that they’re already thinking of this in the patriotic way,” Phillips said. “It’s talking about mothers as the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration and showing the flag is a public expression of love and reverence. This is a time when the American flag was not everywhere as it is today.”

Jarvis must not have picked up on these initial indications, and she wrote Wilson a letter to thank him, calling him “Your Excellency.” It wouldn’t be long, however, until she regretted the whole idea.

‘A petty sentiment’

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world,” Jarvis is reported as saying.

“And candy! You take a box to Mother ­— and then eat most of it yourself. A petty sentiment.”

Phillips said by the late 20s and early 30s, Jarvis knew the holiday had gotten away from her. Hallmark and other companies began mass producing Mother’s Day cards and small gifts took the place of the reverence and advocacy that was central to Jarvis’ idea.

While Jarvis frequently called upon the purity of the idea, the floral industry introduced a red carnation to honor living mothers as a way to keep up with the demand for white flowers, Katherine Anatolini wrote in “Memorializing Motherhoood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day.”

To counter the re-appropriation of the carnation, and hoping it not be commoditized, Jarvis created an emblem to honor Mother’s Day as an alternative to the flower. It didn’t take off.

At one point, Phillips said Jarvis was even arrested for disturbing the peace while protesting the commercialization of the day

Jarvis, said Phillips, was mainly alone in her outrage.

“Women had had the right to vote,” Phillips said.

“When everyone is congratulating themselves on just beating the Nazis, it’s not something people want to hear that the holiday where they give their mother’s gifts is shallow.”

Jarvis is claimed to have said she wished she never thought of the holiday. Vocally against it for the rest of her life, Jarvis never married nor had children. Phillips said she died from unknown causes in 1940 in a sanitarium.

Rolling in her grave?

This year, Americans are expected to spend between $18 billion and $19.8 billion on Mothers Day, retail surveys suggest, and the holiday is celebrated around the world. With Mother’s Day so far removed from its original purpose, it’s easy to feel sorry for Jarvis.

“She’s one of those historical figures who was active in a very important way and was doing a lot of great things. Mother’s day was a small part of her overall activism, but that’s what she’s known for so we take her as kind of a crank,” said Phillips. “And that’s not fair.”

If Anna Jarvis were alive today, no doubt she would be shocked, said Phillips. Mother’s Day however, is still nothing in terms of commercialization compared to Halloween or Christmas.

“I’m sure she would be displeased, but she seemed to be displeased about a lot.”

“There’s a ceiling on how commercial it (Mother’s Day) can become. It’s like Thanksgiving...there aren’t Thanksgiving Day gifts.”

So maybe, her spirit can take comfort in that. Happy Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis.

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