Estimated reading time: 18 minute(s)

Beginning in 1907 or 1908, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia led a national movement to have Mother’s Day recognized as a holiday in the United States. Her movement was wildly successful. By 1909, many states and localities had informally recognized Mother’s Day. Inspired by Jarvis, Australia held its first Mother’s Day observances in 1910. In 1914, then-President Woodrow Wilson signed the first Mother’s Day Proclamation, subsequent to a Congressional joint resolution, and it has been recognized on the second Sunday of May ever since. In this article, I will examine numerous original newspaper articles and texts detailing the push to make Mother’s Day a nationally observed day, early Mother’s Days, and the original meaning of Mother’s Day that Jarvis herself thought in later years had been lost due to excessive commercialization.

Mother’s Day Before it Became a Holiday

The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that the customs underlying Mother’s Day long preexisted its being recognized as a holiday in the United States and other countries. According to the Mother’s Day article on the encyclopedia:

“During the Middle Ages the custom developed of allowing those who had been moved away to visit their home parishes and their mothers on Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. This became Mothering Sunday in Britain, where it continued into modern times…”

Thus, there was a long-standing basis for choosing to recognize Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May.

Anna Jarvis and the Genesis of Mother’s Day

Anna Marie Jarvis led the movement to establish Mother’s Day as a holiday in the United States. Her mother, Ann Jarvis, advocated for the recognition of mothers on a designated day. Ann Jarvis died in 1905. On May 10, 1908, Ann Jarvis’s daughter, Anna, held a memorial service for her mother at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. In so doing, she sought not only to honor her own mother, but to establish day for honoring all mothers.

A photo of Anna Jarvis, the woman behind Mother's Day in the United States.
Anna Jarvis – retrieved from Wikipedia

(Do note that some sources – including Britannica, date Anna Jarvis’s memorial for her mother as occurring in 1907. Some contemporaneous sources suggest 1907, while others suggest 1908. I will venture that she held remembrances on both occasions, and that different sources credited one or the other with inspiring the national movement to recognize Mother’s Day.)

Jarvis’s home state of West Virginia passed a law designating the second Sunday in May for the observance of Mother’s Day in 1910. Within a few years of Jarvis’s inaugural Mother’s Day observance in 1908, nearly every state in the United States had recognized Mother’s Day.

A 1909 Letter to Anna Jarvis

As I will explore further in this article, Mother’s Day was widely observed as early as 1909. Anna Jarvis was credited by 1909 sources with leading the movement for the recognition of Mother’s Day. On May 9, 1909, The Florida Star reprinted a melancholy letter sent to Anna Jarvis, signed by “His Mother.” The mother who wrote the letter praised Jarvis for her “godly thought,” and wrote as follows:

I have a son and three daughters. They are all good to me. I want nothing, as I need but little. I am very feeble, and I know that I have not much longer to live. He writes to me, and when he gives me an address I write to him. He is so kind to me. He sends me money and everything, but will not come home. He is wandering all over the world, and I want him to come to his home if only for one night. If I could only see him and tell him how I love him I should feel that all the goodness that God intended for me in my old age was mine. I do not want his money. I am saving it all for him. But, oh, if he would only come to me before I die I should be so happy! Please pray for my boy with me and ask that he be sent home.

“His Mother” in letter to Anna Jarvis

A very touching letter – I hope very much that “His Mother” was able to see her son again. Sentiments such as these informed Anna Jarvis’s advocacy for Mother’s Day – an occasion for children and mothers to spend time together and appreciate each other. That “His Mother” thought to write her story in a letter to Jarvis reflects how Jarvis was seen as the leader of the movement to recognize Mother’s Day at the time.

Anna Jarvis’s Regret

As we will explore further in the article, Anna Jarvis’s campaign was a stunning success. Six or seven years after she began her movement, Mother’s Day was not only officially recognized as a Federal holiday, but it was also observed around the English-speaking world. Jarvis saw Mother’s Day as an occasion for children to actually see their mothers, or to remember their mothers who were no longer with them. Unsurprisingly, she had a negative view of the subsequent commercialization of Mother’s Day, which seems to have begun in earnest in the 1920s.

The following quote comes courtesy of the West Virginia Explorer:

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.

Anna Jarvis

Her view of giving candy to one’s mother was no less negative:

And candy! You take a box to mother–and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.

Anna Jarvis

Anna Jarvis became so disaffected by what Mother’s Day had become that in 1943 she began circulating a petition to abolish Mother’s Day. Jarvis was poor and in poor health in her old age, and she was placed in a sanatorium. According to Olive Ricketts, director of the Anna Jarvis Museum, the florists and other commercial interests footed the bill to keep Jarvis in the sanatorium.

One article in the January 10, 1945 edition of Australia’s Advocate noted that Jarvis was poor and penniless, contrasting her plight with the millions that she made for traders after Mother’s Day became a commercial success.

The Washington Times on Mother’s Day in 1909

Contemporaneous evidence establishes that Anna Jarvis’s effort to establish the recognition of the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day spread quickly. For example, on May 9, The Washington Times published an article titled The Originator of Mother’s Day featuring a picture of Anna Jarvis. Right away, astute readers will note that the article headline asserted that Mother’s Day was already recognized – five years before Woodrow Wilson entered the first Mother’s Day Proclamation. Below, I will note some key points from the article.

Anna Jarvis’s Role in Establishing Mother’s Day

The significance of Mother’s Day, the observance of which originated with Miss Anna Jarvis, of Philadelphia, has spread into the minds and gripped the hearts of men everywhere.

Note that the Times wrote this just one year after Anna Jarvis held the Mother’s Day service for her mother. In another interesting note, you may notice that the paper referred to Anna Jarvis as “Miss,” evincing that she was unmarried. Anna Jarvis remained unmarried for the duration of her life, and she never had children.

Early Official Recognition of Mother’s Day

In several of the States the governors have proclaimed the second Sunday in May as the day, and in a number of the larger cities the mayors are leaders in its observance.

This serves as evidence that the path to Mother’s Day gaining national recognition began as an effort among the States. This is somewhat similar to the push for Federal recognition of a day of Thanksgiving, which I discussed previously in an article here at The New Leaf Journal.

Mother’s Day in Washington D.C. in 1909

The Washington Times wrote specifically about Mother’s Day observances in Washington D.C.:

In Washington the observance is widespread. It is an observance that knows no creed, no distinction of wealth or position; its spirit, as expressed in churches, Sunday schools, lodge rooms, and societies is universal.

The article noted that some observers in Washington D.C. hoped to see Mother’s Day gain universal official recognition:

The Reverend John Van Schaick not only asked that Mothers’ Day be given general observance, but fervently advocated the adoption, as a governmental measure and safeguard, of some form of insurance that would free dependent mothers from the sting of poverty that follows the death of the breadwinner.

The latter sentiment, of course, reflects a non-commercial view of Mother’s Day.

1909 Mother’s Day Remarks by Reverend John Van Schiack

The paper reprinted Reverend John Van Schiack’s remarks. They are a bit difficult to read on the copy of the newspaper that I linked to, so I will reprint them below in their entirety – separating them into section and appending some brief comments.

On Benefits for Widowed Mothers

As society is organized today, it places too heavy a burden on the mothers. If a wageworker is killed at his post in Germany, the financial burden is divided between his wife and mother, the employe and the state. Here the mother bears it all. If Mothers’ Day does nothing else it ought to create sentiment for an industrial insurance that will lift a crushing load from the women and children of America.

To begin, do note that “employe” is not a typo. That is how it was printed in the original paper.

Van Schiak began his Mother’s Day sermon with a plea for tangible action – here benefits for mothers who had lost their husbands, and yet still had to provide for herself and, in some cases, her children. The Reverend’s reference to what he considered a more favorable situation for widows in Germany is mildly chilling in hindsight – having the knowledge that within the decade, hundreds of thousands of German mothers would be widowed as a result of the First World War, along with millions more throughout Europe.

Calling for Local Mother’s Day Traditions

I doubt if ever a Mothers’ Day could be established by law, but I have no doubt but what with little effort the custom could be firmly established in churches and homes of having one day especially to set apart and dedicated to our mothers. No instinct is so strong in humanity as the instinct of motherhood. No love that we ever have near us is as much to us, or some of us at least, as the love of our mothers. No service is rendered to the community or the nation or the race as great as that of the mothers.

While Van Schiack clearly hoped to see Mother’s Day officially recognized as a national holiday, he considered it unlikely. In the alternative, he hoped that local communities followed his example and recognized the second Sunday in May as a day for the recognition of mothers.

As we know, Van Schiack’s doubts about Mother’s Day garnering official recognition turned out to be unduly pessimistic. Wilson would publish the first Mother’s Day Proclamation five years after Van Schiack delivered his 1909 sermon.

On the Virgin Mary, the Ideal Mother

Think first of the typical mother, that ideal mother, the Blessed Mary, mother of Christ, Mary ought to occupy a higher place in our affections than she does. What is called mariolatry, or the adoration of the Virgin Mary, accounts for some failure to study and understand and reverence her beautiful character. Mariolatry is an opprobrious term applied by some Protestants to the veneration of the Virgin by Roman Catholics. I do not sympathize with these Protestants. I do appreciate the love and reverence of Catholics for Mary.

Having criticized many of his fellow Protestants for allowing their antipathy toward Catholics to cause them to not venerate the Virgin Mary, the Reverend concluded with a sermon on the example of Mary:

In some way, Mary has become the friend of the friendless, the helper of the helpless, the hope of the hopeless. When we think of the sacrifice on Cavalry, let us remember that there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother. Her sacrifice is a symbol of that made by mothers in all ages. Their sacrifice for us calls us to the support of laws that will make the lives of all women sweeter, freer, and brighter.

Mother’s Day Resolution Passes Congress

On May 8, 1914, then-President Woodrow Wilson issued the first Mother’s Day Proclamation pursuant to a Congressional joint resolution passed that same day. The House Resolution was introduced by Congressman James Thomas Heflin, U.S. Representative for Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District. After passing the House without protest, the legislation was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas. The resolution’s path through Congress was discussed in the May 10, 1914 edition of The Washington Herald.

President Woodrow Wilson’s 1914 Mother’s Day Proclamation

You will find a photo of the Proclamation, courtesy of the National Archive, reprinted below:

National Archive photograph of Woodrow Wilson's May 8, 1914 Mother's Day Proclamation.
Wilson’s Mother’s Day Proclamation

The Proclamation read in the pertinent part:

Now, Therefore, I, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Joint Resolution, do hereby direct the government officials to display the United States flag on all government buildings and do invite the people of the United States to display the flag at their home or other suitable places on the second Sunday in May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.

Praise for the Proclamation

President Wilson and the Congress were praised for the move. The Sunday, May 10 edition of The Washington Herald included the following quote from Mgr. William T. Russell, a pastor at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church:

The decision of Congress and the President to recognize officially, one day in the year when the mothers of the nation will be honored by the whole people, is a most laudable act. No nation can rise higher than the standard of its mothers and to the mothers of America we owe whatever we have gained in the movement toward a higher and nobler type of American manhood and womanhood.

Abram Simon of the Washington Hebrew Congregation:

From the patriarchal day until this, motherhood has spoken with a Hebrew accent. But motherhood was not detached from fatherhood obligations. It is parenthood which needs emphasis and ceaseless devotion. I believe in mothers. I believe in ‘Mothers’ day,’ and I believe in mothers’ duty. But I believe it ought to be of practical value. ‘Mother’s Day,’ is, after all, a woman’s creation, but it must become a man’s institution.

Anna Jarvis Thanks the Associated Advertising Clubs

Several of the articles I have cited to noted that Anna Jarvis was from Philadelphia. The June 29, 1916 edition of the Evening Ledger-Philadelphia, noted Jarvis’s gratitude to the Associated Advertising Clubs for helping to make Mother’s Day’s recognition a reality. The paper wrote:

Mother’s Day was first promoted by Philadelphia papers, and through the cooperation of the press of this and other countries has been made an international celebration. No movement of the century has obtained so wonderful a hold on the hearts of the people under such a multitude of difficulties and limitations in establishing and promoting it.

The May 11, 1912 edition of Minnesota’s Bemidji Daily Pioneer, offered additional detail about the hard work Jarvis undertook to gain recognition for Mother’s Day:

Miss Jarvis wrote to churches, societies, public officials, noted people and the press and all joined in the movement which she had originated. It has spread so rapidly that this year a majority of the governors of the states have issued proclamations setting aside tomorrow as Mother’s day and suggesting that it be made one of the state’s memorial days.

Carnations and Mother’s Day

1840 drawing of four carnations - public domain.
Drawing, Four carnations, ca. 1840; France; pencil, gouache colors; Purchased for the Museum by the Advisory Council; 1925-1-119 – “Four carnations” is marked with CC0 1.0

Mother’s Day was originally associated with white carnations. People would wear white carnations to honor their mothers. According to the May 11, 1912 edition of Minnesota’s Bemidji Daily Pioneer, the carnation tradition changed out of necessity.

The original plan was that each one wishing to honor his mother would wear a white carnation, but the demand proving greater than the supply, it was decided to wear a white carnation for the dead and a bright flower for the living. So wear a flower tomorrow, white or bright, ‘in honor of the best mother in the world, your mother.’

The May 10, 1914 Washington Herald also noted white carnation supply issues:

The white carnation will be worn by thousands in Washington, the carnation being the symbol of ‘Mothers Day.’ Local florists, however, have served notice that the carnation supply is short this spring and it is quite likely that white flowers of other varieties will also be worn.

Note that Minnesota and Washington D.C. appear to have had different customs. I was curious what Anna Jarvis’s view was. According to an article in the May 10, 1912 edition of Colorado’s The Chronicle-News, Jarvis’s position was closer to that of Washington D.C.:

Miss Jarvis says the day will be more widely celebrated this year than ever before. A white carnation is the official flower, and every one is asked to wear one unless some other flower was the mother’s favorite.

Mother’s Day in World War I

Mother’s Day 1918 was observed in the midst of America’s fighting in the First World War. Anna Jarvis, perhaps thinking of mothers like the letter-writer who wrote about wanting nothing more than to see her son again years earlier, stated that the 1918 Mother’s Day should also be observed as Soldiers’ Day. The following is the March 16, 1918 Los Angeles Herald article on the story, reprinted in its entirety:

Mothers’, Soldiers’ Day to be Observed (Los Angeles Herald, March 16, 1918)

Mothers’ Day, on May 12, will also be Soldiers’ Day, according to the plans announced by Miss Anna Jarvis, founder of the custom. In New York Miss Jarvis announced that it is the plan this year to celebrate Mothers’ Day by an interchange of greetings between mothers and their sons on the battle front.

Anna Jarvis’s Idea Goes Global: Mother’s Day in Australia in 1910

Anna Jarvis not only succeeded in gaining quick recognition for Mother’s Day in the United States, her efforts reverberated an ocean away. The June 20, 1910 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald featured an article about Australia’s first observation of Mother’s Day on June 19, 1910. Below, in several sections, I will examine the first Mother’s Day in Australia, as told by the paper.

Australia’s First Mother’s Day

Australia celebrated Mother’s Day yesterday for the first time.

While this was true, the Herald noted that most Australians had not been aware of the celebration:

The majority of the citizens knew nothing of it. It came quietly and unostentatiously. A few churches and associations held special services, and a few thousand people wore the white carnation, emblem of purity, faithfulness, charity, and love–essential qualities of the true mother.

The Herald went on to detail several of the 1910 June Mother’s Day observances in Australia.

Australia 1910 Mother’s Day at the Y.M.C.A.

We begin with a description of the setting:

Mother’s Day was celebrated with much enthusiasm at the Y.M.C.A. yesterday. The lecture-room was tastefully decorated with white flowers, while nearly every buttonhole held a white carnation.

Remarks at this Mother’s Day observance were delivered by a man named Canon Bellingham. According to the Herald, Bellingham “paid a loyal tribute to Victoria the Good,” referring to the late Queen Victoria, who had died in 1901. It described his remarks on Queen Victoria as follows:

He pictured her growing as a lily in a marsh, serenely pure in her influence in spite of the tainted atmosphere of the Georgian Court. The strength and inspiration of the reign of Edward the Peacemaker were drawn from his mother.

We are told that Bellingham’s speech included many other “examples of superb motherhood in sacred and secular history…”

Australia 1910 Mother’s Day at the Young Women’s Christian Association

A certain Miss Meager presided over the observance of Mother’s Day at the Young Women’s Christian Association. We are told that “solos were sung illustrating the power and influence of a mother’s love.” All persons in attendance “wore white flowers and blossoms.” The Herald summarized the main speech at the event:

The speaker told of the influence of a good mother on some of the famous men of history. She urged her bearers to lavish their love and care upon their mothers now, and not to wait until they had passed away.

Australia 1910 Mother’s Day at Chalmers’ Church

We are told that Chalmer’s Church had a “packed congregation” for its Mother’s Day celebration. The attendees wore white flowers “and special songs and solos were sung.” The Herald quoted the Church’s Reverend, Angus King:

‘Where are the great men of the world made?’ Napoleon was asked. And the Corsican replied, ‘In the nursery.’

King addressed mothers in the real world, urging his congregation to honor their mothers even when they fell short of the ideal:

After giving some practical precepts for the home the preacher said that the real mother was sometimes below the ideal. But that did not matter. She was tired and weary and worn with the struggle to make both ends meet. They should see her as she ought to be, as she longed to be, in her best moments.

King discussed those who missed their mothers dearly:

He told of the soldiers on the veldt, comrades in exile, singing about their mother, and their poor rhymes were uplifted by love to the level of the most sacred songs. Hearts grew tender, holy memories awakened, and the tears sprang into many eyes.

A congregant who we are told served in the 8th Hussars sang the following:

Though your footsteps falter,
My love will never alter.
As your hair grows whiter
I will love you more

The chaplain asked the young soldier whether he had a mother.

Aye, sir, indeed I have, and I mean every word I sing.

Australia 1910 Mother’s Day at Palmer-street Church

We are told little about the special service conducted at the Palmer-street Church by Reverend W.A.S. Anderson. The Herald reported that, similarly to the other services, “White flowers were worn, hymns and solos were given suitable to the occasion, and a speaker delivered a sympathetic address on ’God’s High Commissioners.”

Inspiration from Anna Jarvis

Lest one had any doubt about where Australia found the idea, the Herald noted Jarvis’s influence:

Mother’s Day has been honoured for four years in America. The idea was appropriately enough, a woman’s. Miss Anna Jarvis, of Philadelphia, being anxious to show her recognition and appreciation of a good mother, urged the commemoration of Mother’s Day, a day when all mothers, living as well as dead, should be specially remembered by their children.

According to the Herald: “The idea caught on.”

The Promise of a May Mother’s Day in Australia in 1911

The first Mother’s Day in Australia occurred in June instead of May. The Herald addressed this point:

The idea is to make it worldwide–for people the world over on the second Sunday in May to crown Mother Queen of May in the hearts of her children. It was hoped to fall in line with America. But arrangements could not be made in time. Next year Australia, America, and Europe will celebrate Mother’s Day simultaneously.

Thus, Australia had hoped to celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May in 1910, but due to difficulties in organizing, observed the occasion in June instead. However, having established the Mother’s Day tradition, Australia would go on to observe the day on the second Sunday in May thereafter.

1922 Mother’s Day Cartoon

The following link is a 1922 Mother’s Day cartoon from the May 14, 1922 edition of California’s Madera Mercury.

The Father of Mother’s Day?

The contemporary sources around Mother’s Day were all in accord that Anna Jarvis was the driving force behind Mother’s Day becoming a holiday. While looking for articles on the subject, I came across an alternative claimant to the mantle of Mother’s Day founder. The following article was published in the June 19, 1925 edition of Colorado’s Moffat Bell.

The article noted that the Mother’s Day International Association “stoutly claims that its president, Miss Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia, originated Mothers’ day.” However, we are told that the American War Mothers insisted that Frank Hering, a then-former athlete football coach from South Bend, Indiana, should be recognized as the “father” of Mothers’ day. The American War Mothers took the position that Hering pushed for a Mother’s Day observance as far back as 1902, although contemporary sources cite to a speech he gave at Notre Dame in 1904.

I did not find many other sources suggesting the tension implied in the 1925 article. For example, on May 7, 1948, the Colorado Eagle and Journal noted both that the Fraternal Order of Eagles began recognizing Mother’s Day in 1904 subsequent to Hering’s speech and that Jarvis led the movement to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. That is, Hering certainly addressed the topic in 1904 and some organizations began observing Mother’s Day as a result of the address, but Jarvis was responsible for Mother’s Day being adopted as a holiday in the United States and abroad.

Final Thoughts

AlMany articles about Anna Jarvis and Mother’s Day today focus on her having sought the abolition of Mother’s Day later in her life. While that makes for an interesting story – and a sad story in light of the poor circumstances Jarvis found herself in during her final years – it is only a small part of the story of Jarvis and Mother’s Day. By her own account, Jarvis soured on the commercialization of Mother’s Day primarily because, in her view, people substituted gifts of flowers, chocolates, and pre-printed cards for genuinely appreciating their mothers – living and dead.

I included the 1909 letter from an unnamed mother to Jarvis because I think that it aptly highlighted the sentiments that went into the original movement to make Mother’s Day a holiday. There, we had an elderly mother whose son wrote her often and contributed to her upkeep. That mother was happy that her son wrote to her and even appreciated the sentiment behind his sending money. But she wanted nothing more than to be able to see her son in person again, especially in light of the fact that she believed she did not have much longer to live. That the newspaper published the letter meant that Jarvis herself made it amenable to publication. Anna Jarvis viewed that letter as an example of what Mother’s Day was when rightly conceived.

In studying the accounts of early Mother’s Day, we can learn not only what the day was originally intended to be, but also how we can best observe it today. Physical gifts are all well and good, but only when accompanied by genuine gratitude of the sort that Calvin Coolidge expressed for his late mother in his Autobiography, as I wrote about on site.