Q: When did the idea of Mother’s Day start?
Answer: Mother’s Day is Sunday, so we’re running this answer a day early to remind anyone who may need to grab — or, given the current circumstances, make — a last-minute gift.
Anna Jarvis is generally recognized as the founder of a national day to recognize mothers. Before Jarvis, there were other people in the United States who started celebrations honoring mothers in their towns. Mother’s Day is celebrated in other countries, too.
Julia Ward Howe suggested a Mother’s Day in 1872, and picked June 2 as the day. Howe was horrified by the carnage of the Civil War, and hoped that the idea of a day for mothers would promote peace. For several years, Howe held an annual Mother’s Day observance in Boston. Mary Towles Sasseen, a Kentucky schoolteacher, started Mother’s Day celebrations in 1887. Frank E. Hering of Indiana started a campaign for a national observance in 1904.
But Anna Jarvis gets most of the credit for establishing an official Mother’s Day. Jarvis, of Grafton, W.Va., who later moved to Philadelphia, campaigned for a national Mother’s Day in 1907. She chose the second Sunday in May and began the custom of wearing a white carnation. Jarvis was inspired by her own mother, a religious and community activist who encouraged people in her West Virginia community to provide relief to both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
After her mother died, Jarvis began writing to political leaders, asking for their help in establishing an official day to honor mothers. In 1912, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church recognized Jarvis as the founder of Mother’s Day. Governors in a few states proclaimed a Mother’s Day in 1912 and 1913. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day as a national observance.
That’s not the end of the story. Jarvis spent the rest of her days fighting against what she saw as the commercialization of Mother’s Day.
Many of the subjects Jarvis complained about continue to this day. In criticism of florists, she wrote, “What will you do to route charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?”
She didn’t like the gifts or greeting cards or candy, either.
“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, “ she remarked. “And candy! You take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”
The selling of flowers got her goat, in particular, because she suggested the idea of people wearing a carnation on Mother’s Day to honor their mothers. The police had to be called when Jarvis stormed a group’s meeting to protest its sale of white flowers for Mother’s Day. The group was the American War Mothers.
Jarvis never became a mother herself. She was confined to a nursing home for the last few years of her life, and died alone at the age of 84.
Forgiving florists paid her nursing-home bills.