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Mother's Day - It's Modern Day Origins

Updated: May 22, 2020

Card from the Collection of TVHS

In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson designated Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May, as a national holiday. The movement for a day to honor mothers was the work of Anna Jarvis. After the death of her mother Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis on May 9, 1905 Anna worked to establish the modern Mother’s Day to honor mothers and the sacrifices they make for their children.

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis (1832-1905)

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis (Wikimedia Commons)

The work of her mother Ann, the daughter of a Methodist minister, was the inspiration. Ann had dedicated her life to helping others. In the mid-1800s she established “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” in West Virginia to improve health and sanitary conditions, support families and mothers in need. During the Civil War the clubs remained neutral and helped soldiers by treating their wounds and providing them food, clothes, etc. After the war she organized Mothers’ Friendship Day to bring together soldiers and individuals from both sides. She was dedicated to her church, Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, now a National Historic Landmark and home of the International Mother’s Day Shrine.

(For more information on Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis and her work visit the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History )

Carnations are the focus of this 1916 Northern Pacific Railway postcard (Wikimedia Commons)

Anna’s Mother’s Day movement and call for recognition was spreading throughout the United States and on May 10, 1908 the first Mother’s Day celebration was held. This second Sunday date was chosen because of its proximity to the anniversary of her mother's death. Ceremonies took place at Andrews Church and, with the financial support of John Wannamaker, at his stores in Philadelphia.

White carnations, Ann’s favorite flower, became the symbol of the day. Within several years all states were celebrating the holiday and Anna had established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause. In 1914 Mother's Day became a national holiday.

Port Jefferson Echo, Saturday, May 16, 1908

On next Sunday the Presbyterians of Setauket and at Stony Brook will observe a special day in honor of Our Mothers. The object of this day is to brighten the lives of our Mothers and to make them more honored, loved and protected by their children. To remind sons and daughter of the unselfish devotion of their Mothers and possibly of their neglect of their parents. To ask men and women and children to make their Mothers feel this May day that in her children’s hearts she is “Queen of the May.” Every person who will observe this day is asked to wear a white carnation and to get some one other person to wear a white carnation in honor of Mother. There will be appropriate services in the Presbyterian church at Setauket in the morning at which the children with the mothers will turn out for this day, and in the Presbyterian Chapel at Stony Brook in the afternoon. Those who know of a mother who would attend this service if some one made it possible for her to do it, are asked to make it possible. A day like this was first observed at Norfolk, Va., May 6th, and a similar festival was held last Sunday in New York City and was honored by the mayor.

Why did founder Anna Jarvis later denounce the holiday?

As the holiday gained in popularity so did its commercialization and Anna Jarvis resented this. She saw the day as a time to attend church and visit one’s mother with the white carnation a symbol of honor.

By the 1920s she felt companies were exploiting the sentiment of the holiday. “Jarvis argued that people should appreciate and honor their mothers through handwritten letters expressing their love and gratitude, instead of buying gifts and pre-made cards.” Eventually she protested against the florists, confectioners and others profiting from the day. She sued organizations she felt exploited the term “Mother’s Day” and eventually lobbied the government to remove the holiday. Anna died in 1948.


Andrew’s Methodist Church and Mother's Day Shrine:

Anna Jarvis birthplace:

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