The Forgotten History of Mother’s Day

The Forgotten History of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day began as a women’s movement to better the lives of all Americans. Its forgotten origin springs from two lifelong activists who championed efforts toward better health, welfare, and peace. The origin of a national Mother’s Day is primarily attributed to three women: Ann Reeves Jarvis, Julia Ward Howe, and Ann’s daughter, Anna M. Jarvis.

Ann Reeves Jarvis

Known as “Mother Jarvis,” Ann was a young Appalachian homemaker who taught Sunday school lessons. She was also a lifelong activist who, in the mid-1800s, organized “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” in West Virginia to combat unsanitary living conditions. Reeves Jarvis was concerned about the high mortality rate, especially pervasive in Appalachia, and wanted to educate and help mothers who had the greatest need. 

During the Civil War, Mother Jarvis also organized women’s brigades, encouraging women to help without regard for which side their men had chosen. After the war, she proposed a Mother’s Friendship Day to promote peace between former Union and Confederate families.

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe was a famous poet and reformer. During the Civil War, she volunteered for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, helping them to provide hygienic environments for hospitals to ensure sanitary conditions during the care of sick and wounded soldiers. In 1861, she authored the famous Civil War anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was first published in February 1862. 

Around 1870, Julia called for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” dedicated to the celebration of peace and the eradication of war. As was expressed in her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” from 1870, she felt that mothers should gather to prevent the cruelty of war and the waste of life since mothers of mankind alone bear the cost. 

Her version of Mother’s Day was held in Boston and other locations for about 30 years but died a quick death in the years preceding World War 1. Nothing new happened in this department until 1907 when Anna M. Jarvis of Philadelphia infused the banner with new lifeblood.

Anna M. Jarvis

After her mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis, died in 1905, Miss Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia wished to memorialize her mother’s life and began campaigning for a national day to honor all mothers. “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will establish a memorial Mother’s Day commemorating my mother for the matchless service she rendered to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.” 

Anna’s ideas were less public about service and more about honoring the role of motherhood and the sacrifices made in the home. She bombarded public figures and various civic organizations with telegrams, letters, and in-person discussions. She addressed groups large and small while at her own expense, she wrote, printed, and distributed booklets extolling her ideas and ideals. 

Why Mother’s Day is in May

In May of 1907, Anna memorialized her mother’s lifelong activism with a memorial service held at the Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where her mother had taught. The following year, on May 10, a Mother’s Day service was held at the same church to acknowledge all mothers. Moms and grandmothers alike can thank Anna Jarvis for creating the symbolism of carnations as the flower representing Mother’s Day. On May 10, 1908, Anna sent hundreds of white carnations, her late mother’s favorite flower, to her hometown church in West Virginia for a celebration honoring all mothers. That same day, she hosted a similar event in Philadelphia. . Her efforts came to the attention of the mayor of Philadelphia, who proclaimed a local Mother’s Day. She then went on to Washington, D.C.Thus, the idea was born that the second Sunday In May, be set aside to honor every mother, whether living or deceased

The politicians there knew a good thing when they saw it and were quick to lend their verbal support.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill designating the second Sunday in May as a legal holiday to be called “Mother’s Day — dedicated “to the best mother in the world, your mother.” For the first few years, the day was observed as a legal holiday, but in absolute simplicity and reverence. Church services were held in honor of all mothers, both living and deceased.

The Bittersweet Legacy of Mother’s Day

According to many sources, Annasimply wanted to honor her mother, claiming that her mother was the originator of the real Mother’s Day. As the holiday went mainstream, she was dismayed to see it become more commercialized with the sending of flowers and greeting cards. She also didn’t want the holiday promoted by women’s organizations, charitable foundations, or public health reformers to raise money — somewhat ironic considering her mother’s public health mission. In 1948, Anna Jarvis died in a sanitarium in a state of dementia. 

Mother’s Day Today

Mother’s Day endures and evolves. Just as Mother’s Day was created by multiple women, in my opinion, every day should be a celebration of the various roles of today’s mothers. Let us commemorate the way mothers have fought to better the lives of their children and grandchildren from social welfare to living a life of peace, and non-violence, while nurturing them with love, courage, and unconstrained devotion.

Motherhood Changes Us All

The most memorable moment of becoming a mother often involves a single day. You gave life to the child inside of you, but the first day is only the beginning of an identity shift that is ongoing and eternal. That’s why, long after the messy, glorious, and complicated story of a sense of self and motherhood, you will transform yourself from who you are to who you want to be. 

If I Could

If I could see you again

For just a while

If I could be with you 

If only to see you smile 

If only for a moment 

If only to get a glimpse 

To feel your touch

To let our hearts beat as one

To let our souls linger awhile 

To be your little boy again

If only I could

If only for a little while

But then, 

Maybe we could while away the hours

We could laugh

We could cry 

We could sit on the moon

And gaze out at the stars

Or sit on top of a mountain of violets and lilacs 

If I could only meet you one more time 

At the crossroads of my childhood 

We could, if only for a moment 

Look down memory lane one last time

To feel that sense of the moment

To smell that unexplainable scent of the presence of God 

If I could, I would embrace the love you gave me

And give right back to you

To let it spend eternity with you and me 

A burst of color in the midst of pale

I wish you wings to fly with the angels in heaven’s skies

I wish for you all that you wished for me

On this, and every single day

I wish you flowers to brighten your days 

God made a wonderful mother 

He made her smile from the rays of the morning sun

He gave her a heart of pure gold

He placed bright shiny stars in her eyes 

To see fair roses from across the seas 

For you see

God made that wonderful mother

And gave her to me

On the evening of my high school Junior Prom, she pinned a pink carnation onto the lapel of a white sports coat she bought me. 

Happy Mother’s Day Mom, 

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Comments (2)

  • Naomi

    A very good and interesting article to inform us of how Mother’s Day began. I’ll enjoy the day with my greatest accomplishment in life: my two daughters! Your poem is quite moving and Ellen would be so proud of you. Happy Mother’s Day to all.

  • Alyssa McCombie

    its so interesting to learn about how holidays start. this one I've always wondered how it started and who started it. what wonderful women to make this all happen and thanks Woodrow Wilson for declaring this a very happy national holiday!

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