History of Mother’s Day

The Mother’s Day

“A Focus on Mother and not Her Card”


Most holidays are difficult to pin down to one person who started the practice. Thankfully one woman can be attributed to proposing the precursor to our modern Mother’s Day. However, her tragic story carries a lesson of unexpected outcomes and an unspoken charge for children and spouses to take a step back. On May 1st, 1864 Anna Marie Jarvis was born in West Virginia. Her mother was a devout Episcopalian and it was her prayer that first inspired Anna Jarvis, only a child at the time:  


“I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.” Ann Reeves Jarvis


After completing seminary and working as a bank teller in Tennessee, Anna would find success in Philadelphia working for Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company becoming its first female advertising editor. Throughout her life and all her travels away from West Virginia, Anna remained close to her mother. Her mother pushed her to pursue higher education, showed pride in all of her successes, and also helped to maintain her daughter’s faith. Keeping in touch via letters the pair remained close, worrying for her failing health Anna reportedly requested that her mother move to Philadelphia. Ann eventually agreed, however, by the time she made it to Philadelphia to be with her daughter her heart complications were too severe. Three years after that initial offer and eight days after her daughter’s 41st birthday, Ann Reeves Jarvis died in 1905. From then on Anna began her campaign to bring her mother’s prayer to life. At the funeral service, her brother Claude reportedly heard Anna make her promise then that Ann would have her  “Mothers Day.”


By 1907 Anna’s campaign to create a “Mothers Day” began, for her own mother as well as all mothers. She and her followers began petitioning local officials. Letters by the hundreds and although met with indifference at first, Anna’s idea caught on, and soon states began to celebrate the “holiday,” albeit unofficially. By 1909 the de facto holiday was practiced in forty-five states and Puerto Rico. All holidays have a symbol, and for “Mothers Day” back then, people wore white and red carnations, Ann Jarvis’ favorite flower. White flowers were worn for the deceased and red to celebrate mothers still living. The unofficial holiday continued to pick up popularity, and by 1914 President Woodrow Wilson formally established what we call Mother’s Day, a national holiday held on the second Sunday of May. The holiday has evolved over time, from your basic red and white carnations to breakfast in bed, then cards, now gifts, and now texts messages instead of letters.


A common criticism of the millennial generation is that they are detached, entitled, and inherently shallow. In a world of increasing advertisements and convenience, Millennials are accustomed to fast results and have no patience. They don’t appreciate the sentiment and live in a digital daydream, a smart device replacing their actual intelligence; a barrier between them and reality. Whether this critique is accurate or not, the commercialization of all things, including Mother’s Day was something Anna Jarvis was not prepared for. Businesses soon capitalized on the marketing of Mother’s Day, chocolates, cards, and especially flowers were being priced up. The symbol of her mother and her day was turned into a sharp tool of economics. Anna was heavyhearted about such commercialization and with fervid resistance created an emblem for people to wear instead of buying flowers and express the idea of preserving the pure sentimental, heartwarming part of the holiday. Using all of her finances and resources the “Mother of Mother’s Day” rallied against her own creation leading her to poverty in her old age. Her health declined, and she was eventually placed in a sanitarium where she was diagnosed with dementia. She would die there at the age of 84, her time there was unknowingly paid for in-part by florists who appreciated her mission. Anna Jarvis was buried at her mother’s side in West Laurel Hill Cemetery; the church bell was rung 84 times in her honor.  


History is a battle of established perspectives, perceptions of which change over time as more perspectives are considered and a broader portrayal of events is seen. Anna Jarvis was deemed insane, but consider the “simpler era” she was a product of and its ideals.    


Cards to Anna Jarvis couldn’t replace a hand-written letter, an old-fashioned idea of course, but the chances that any mother today still has a Mother’s Day text saved on their smartphone is unlikely. Chocolates are a custom of the generation, but they’re quickly consumed, and the taste is quickly forgotten by many. Floral arrangements, even the most fantastic and outstanding ones are another burden to care for, and most are ignored being left to wilt and die. The only ones who keep anything that lasts, are the businesses who sell the goods of the holiday, at least that was Anna Jarvis’ fear. Maybe her emotions and words that should have expressed purchase-able sentiments defeated the point of her “Mothers Day.” She engaged in that battle of perspectives, trying with all of herself to establish her ideals. Shrines and tributes to Anna Jarvis are still marked today. We can never ask her, but it’s a perspective to consider as we visit graves, hug those still-living and give back what we can to the women who gave to us first. Even if all we can give is meaningful attention and time.