Mother's Day

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Mother's Day

A day of celebration and commemoration, Mother's Day has occupied a place on America's calendar since the early twentieth century. The woman responsible for its inception was Anna Jarvis (1864-1948), who wanted to memorialize her own mother and as a result saw the value in honoring all American mothers.

Having grown up in West Virginia, Jarvis moved to Philadelphia in 1891, where she began an extended correspondence with her mother back in her home town. Mrs. Jarvis moved to Philadelphia in 1903, where she died two years later. Her daughter Anna not only wanted to keep the memory of her mother alive, but also wanted to immortalize what she saw as the qualities of all mothers—piety, domesticity, maternal purity, loyalty, and love.

Perhaps inspired by other well-established days of remembrance such as Children's Day and Memorial Day, Jarvis set out to make Mother's Day a "holy day" to be celebrated in local churches on the second Sunday in May. The first public memorial service for her own mother took place in 1907, and one year later official Mother's Day services were held in churches all across the United States. Mother's Day became a celebrated day of observance for a number of reasons. First, because it honored the traditional role of women in the family home, it reassured those who were uneasy about the "new womanhood" that emerged as a result of World War I, and thus became increasingly popular. Second, and more important, it was deemed a viable commercial holiday for various business concerns, who therefore widely publicized it as an important event.

Never married and never a mother herself, Anna Jarvis thought Mother's Day should be celebrated as simply and solemnly as possible. The symbol of her sentiments was a white carnation, to be worn as an emblem in honor of one's mother. To her consternation, however, the floral industry seized upon her idea and used the carnation as a basis for their own promotions. Thanks to Victorian sentimentality, flowers had long been associated with femininity and domesticity; the American floral trade merely capitalized on this fashion. As early as 1910, the FTD (Florists' Telegraph Delivery Service) had begun to encourage sons and daughters to send flowers to faraway mothers, and in 1917 the industry began its national promotion of Mother's Day. By 1918, their famous "Say It with Flowers" campaign had been launched. During the 1920s, confectioners, jewelers, and stationers, among others, boosted sales by successfully promoting their own goods as appropriate gifts for Mother's Day, indicating just how popular the holiday had become.

To Anna Jarvis, however, this increase in popularity was accompanied by—or caused by—what she saw as rampant commercialism. Her personal "holy day," whose identity and observance she had wanted to manage herself, had become a commerce-driven "holiday." In the hands of the professional florists, her simple white carnation badge had also become more complicated: white carnations, the florists advocated, should symbolize the memory of mothers no longer living, while red ones should be used for those still alive. Later, these simple floral badges blossomed into full-blown bouquets of more expensive and showy flowers. Furthermore, due to the FTD's aggressive advertising campaign, face-to-face visits and personal correspondence between mothers and children—which Jarvis saw as paramount—were being replaced with impersonal, commercially delivered messages.

In 1920 it was clear that business interests had won the fight over Mother's Day. While previously they had always acknowledged Jarvis as the holiday's founder, and described her as a woman of pluck and sound moral values, by the late 1910s her increasing outspokenness about what she saw as the erosion of Mother's Day rituals forced trade associations to distance themselves from her. By 1920, their relationship was severed and Jarvis' version of the origins and proper ceremony of Mother's Day were completely disavowed.

While Anna Jarvis's efforts to pay tribute to the memory of mothers may have continued to happen on a local level in churches uninfluenced by commercial interests, the floral industry and other trade groups helped turn it into a national holiday that everyone celebrated in very similar ways, part of what historian Leigh Eric Schmidt has called the "commercial management of the calendar." The success of Mother's Day also spawned other similarly contrived holidays, most notably Father's Day (the third Sunday in June), which had been advocated in churches since 1910 by Sonora Smart Dodd, but did not become a national observance until 1972. The holiday, with all its commercial connotations, spread abroad to the United Kingdom and countries such as South Africa and Australia, but each has its own date for the celebration. Other less popular offshoots that appeared were Sweetest Day, Bosses' Day, Grandparents' Day, and Professional Secretaries' Day, among others. By the end of the twentieth century, Mother's Day, however, was so deeply embedded in the American psyche and social fabric as to have become almost a $9 billion industry.

—Wendy Woloson

Further Reading:

Hatch, Jane M. American Book of Days, 3 rd ed. New York, Wilson, 1978.

Klebanow, Barbara. American Holidays: Exploring Traditions, Customs, and Backgrounds. Brattleboro, Vermont, Pro Lingua Associates, 1986.

Myers, Robert. Celebrations: Complete Book of American Holidays.New York, Doubleday, 1972.

Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1995.