Mother’s Day

Essay

First rising to popularity in Philadelphia, Mother’s Day has been formally observed on the second Sunday in May since 1914 and celebrated in the United States for even longer. Serving various purposes since the late nineteenth century, Mother’s Day has deep connections to religion, war, feminism, and consumerism. For over a century, the meaning and purpose of Mother’s Day has been used and contested to celebrate individual mothers, enfranchise women, boost congregation numbers, and sell goods, among other purposes.

Bust-length, sepia-tone portrait of Anna Jarvis facing slightly left.
The formal celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States is often attributed to Anna Jarvis, who lived in Philadelphia as an adult, shown here in around 1900. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

The formal celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States is often attributed to Anna Jarvis (1862-1948), a Philadelphia woman determined to commemorate her own mother with a national observance. However, Jarvis was not the first woman to propose a holiday honoring mothers, nor the first woman to engage Philadelphia society in the holiday’s celebration. In 1870, thirty years before Jarvis’s campaign, Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) founded Women’s Journal, a weekly publication in Boston, and featured her Mother’s Day Proclamation that same year. An activist, Howe intended to use Mother’s Day as a call to women to promote peace both in their homes and politically in the wake of the American Civil War, which had permanently separated so many mothers from their children. In 1872, Howe called for Mother’s Day to be celebrated on June 2, and between 1873 and 1913 several American cities held annual services on that day. In Philadelphia, the Universal Peace Union (UPU), a group dedicated to ending war and eradicating the American military, faithfully celebrated Howe’s holiday for four decades. Records of the UPU’s commemorations were kept and published in the organization’s magazines, The Voice of Peace and The Peacemaker and Court of Arbitration.

Despite its relatively positive reception, Howe’s holiday did not reach widespread audiences and her call for an end to war was, for many, too radical. Initially, many UPU members believed women’s equality was crucial to securing world peace, but by the turn of the twentieth century the group shifted focus and downplayed the political role of mothers, encouraging instead cooperation and collaboration between male and female activists. By 1906, the UPU was sponsoring the celebration of “Peace Day” in the Philadelphia school system. By Howe’s death in 1910 the politically active, women-led peace movement she had begun evolved into a new kind of Mother’s Day, influenced and spearheaded by Philadelphian Anna Jarvis.

Anna Jarvis’s Mother’s Day

Jarvis, born in West Virginia, was the tenth child of Granville and Ann Jarvis and their first daughter to live past infancy. She moved to Philadelphia with her brother when she was twenty-eight years old and became an editor at Fidelity Life Insurance Company. When her mother’s health began to decline, Jarvis moved her to Philadelphia and cared for her until her death on May 9, 1905. Jarvis went into a long period of mourning that lasted more than two years and culminated in her newly imagined Mother’s Day observance in 1908.

Jarvis envisioned the day as a way to honor and commemorate her “unselfish Christian mother,” who gave all for her children. Jarvis’s Mother’s Day differed from Howe’s substantially, as Jarvis advocated that individuals “honor the mother of their own heart” and pay no mind to women’s work beyond motherhood. Using her business connections in Philadelphia, Jarvis put together a wealthy group of supporters to sit on a Mother’s Day Committee. Members included department store owner John Wanamaker (1838-1922) and food-processing magnate H.J. Heinz (1844-1919). By 1908, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that many in the city were observing Mother’s Day.

Front of paper program with bust-length portrait of Ann Reeves Jarvis, head turned slightly right.
A portrait of Ann Reeves Jarvis adorns the program for the first official Mother’s Day service, held on the second Sunday in May 1908 at the church where Ann taught Sunday School for over twenty years. (West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries)

Jarvis, who never married or became a mother, committed most of her time to the Mother’s Day cause, writing letters to state and federal legislators and beseeching Congress to declare the holiday official. Although many supported the idea of Mother’s Day, legislators were not keen to vote on the issue. One called the subject “not suitable for legislation,” while others wittily suggested a “mother-in-law’s day.” It was not until Jarvis had the backing of the Protestant Sunday School movement that her holiday garnered major attention and observation.

In an effort to publicize Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis reached out to George W. Bailey (1840-1911), a chairman of the executive committee of the World’s Sunday School Association. Bailey saw potential in a church-led celebration of Mother’s Day, and in 1910 the association endorsed the holiday. Sunday school participation on Mother’s Day was a logical next step for Bailey and his colleagues, as children enjoyed celebrating special occasions and their mothers highly approved of themed lessons on appreciation and respect for parents. As churches embraced Mother’s Day they saw Sunday School attendance rise, and according to a May 1913 issue of the Presbyterian Advance, the high turnout could help ministers “reach the unchurched and the occasional church-attendant.” The popularity of Mother’s Day grew quickly, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) officially proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Changing Meanings

Black line drawing of an American soldier sitting on the edge of his trench during World War I writing a letter to his mother.
On Mother’s Day 1918, General John Pershing requested that all soldiers take a moment to write letters to their mothers. This cartoon by Clifford Berryman evokes the spirit of Pershing’s request. (National Archives and Records Administration)

In the decade following 1914, Mother’s Day was widely celebrated, participation increased each year, and Jarvis was heralded as “the founder of Mother’s Day” in newspapers and advertisements across the county. During this decade, businesses began using the holiday for marketing purposes. In 1913, John Wanamaker’s department store became one of the first businesses to host a Mother’s Day celebration that included music and flowers for customers. In 1916, an advertisement for Snellenburg’s department store in Philadelphia suggested purchasing mother a Victrola, made in neighboring Camden, New Jersey, and greeting card. Printers, florists, chocolatiers and others soon followed suit and began to sell goods for Mother’s Day. During the First World War, Mother’s Day celebrations highlighted connections between motherhood, war, and women’s political and patriotic duties. On Mother’s Day 1918, General John Pershing (1860-1948) requested that all soldiers take a moment to write letters to their mothers. That same year, President Wilson commended American mothers for offering their sons to the United States military, echoing Howe’s sentiments that mothers sacrifice the most in times of war.

Initially, Jarvis was on good terms with businesses that pushed the Mother’s Day message, especially in the early years when her movement lacked support. However, over subsequent decades as more companies used and, in Jarvis’s view, abused the message of Mother’s Day, Jarvis fought to reclaim her holiday’s meaning by writing letters, taking out ads, and copyrighting the phrase “Mother’s Day.” She also objected to the way that the American War Mothers, formed in 1917, used Mother’s Day to fund-raise and further their own cause. Jarvis became so incensed by the societal changes to Mother’s Day that in 1933 she wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) to beseech him to remove the holiday from the nation’s official calendar.

Modern Traditions

Color photograph of men, women, and children ascending three steps with gardens on either side.
Mother’s Day often corresponds with some of the first outdoor events of the year. The families in this photograph are attending the Azalea Festival held on Mother’s Day in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. (Township of Hamilton)

Jarvis spent the last years of her life in Marshall Square Sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where she died in 1948. Despite rampant commercialization, in the twenty-first century the holiday she promoted remained a day for putting mothers first and appreciating their hard work and sacrifice. Internationally, many countries adopted the American holiday over the course of the twentieth century and many others hold their own celebrations of women and motherhood (for example, Mothering Sunday in Great Britain and International Women’s Day in many former Communist countries). In Philadelphia and the surrounding region, groups and businesses offered traditional celebrations such as Mother’s Day tea, brunch, dinners, church picnics, and shopping and spa trips.Activist events, such as feminist political lectures, mother-daughter martial arts classes, and even demonstrations on behalf of women’s health have also taken place. The mid-May celebration also corresponded with some of the first outdoor events of the year, including the Azalea Festival in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, and outdoor music festivals in Atlantic City and Wildwood, New Jersey.

The annual celebration of Mother’s Day in Philadelphia and the United States can be understood as a holiday with complex meanings. Though not entirely true to Jarvis’s vision, or Howe’s for that matter, the holiday has reflected changing attitudes toward motherhood, femininity, domesticity, religion, and patriotism, while still holding fast to the celebration of motherly love and sacrifice.

Mikaela Maria is an editorial, research, and digital publishing assistant for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. She recently received her M.A. from Rutgers University and works as a public historian and museum professional in Philadelphia. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Gallery

Anna M. Jarvis, c. 1900

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The formal celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States is often attributed to Anna Jarvis, shown in this photograph taken around 1900. Born in Grafton, West Virginia, Jarvis moved to Philadelphia with her brother when she was twenty-eight years old. When her mother’s health began to decline, Jarvis moved her to Philadelphia and cared for her until her death on May 9, 1905. Jarvis went into mourning for more than two years, culminating in her newly imagined Mother’s Day observance in 1908. Jarvis envisioned the day as a way to honor and commemorate her “unselfish Christian mother,” who gave all for her children.

Ann Reeves Jarvis Mother’s Day Program

West Virginia and Regional History Center , WVU Libraries

A West Virginia woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis was the inspiration for the formal celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States. After losing seven of her eleven children, Ann became a local activist, working to improve the health of mothers and children in her Appalachian community. During the Civil War, Ann and the women she helped educate cared for wounded soldiers camped in the area. Ann Jarvis’s selfless devotion to family and community left a lasting impression on her young daughter Anna M. Jarvis.

Anna Jarvis moved to Philadelphia in 1890. When Ann fell ill, Anna moved her to Philadelphia as well. Following Ann’s death on May 9, 1905, Anna became determined to honor her mother with a national observance. She lobbied state and federal legislators and used her business connections to put together a wealthy group of supporters to sit on a Mother’s Day Committee. She also reached out to prominent members of the clergy both in Philadelphia and in her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia.

On the second Sunday in May 1908, the first official Mother’s Day service was held at the church in Grafton where Ann Jarvis taught Sunday School for over twenty years. Fittingly, the program for the service, shown here, was adorned with a large portrait of Ann Reeves Jarvis. Daughter Anna was unable to attend the service, but she did send 500 flowers to be worn by sons and daughters in honor of their own mothers. Anna chose white carnations both because they were her mother’s favorite and to signify the purity of a mother’s love for her children. Back in Philadelphia, Anna helped organize a gathering of more than 15,000 people to honor their own mothers.

Although many supported the idea of Mother’s Day, legislators were not keen to vote on the issue. One called the subject “not suitable for legislation,” while others wittily suggested a “mother-in-law’s day.” It was not until Jarvis had the backing of the Protestant Sunday School movement that her holiday garnered major attention and observation. Finally, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Birthplace of Anna M. Jarvis

Library of Congress

Anna M. Jarvis, who lived in Philadelphia as an adult, was born in this home in Grafton, West Virginia. She was the tenth child of Granville and Ann Reeves Jarvis and their first daughter to live past infancy. Determined to help other mothers avoid the devastating loss of a child, Ann Jarvis asked her brother, who was a physician, to teach her how to prevent illness. She shared this knowledge with women in her community, who then shared it with women in neighboring communities through a network of Mothers Friendship Clubs. It was Ann Jarvis’ undying devotion to family and community that inspired her daughter Anna to establish Mother’s Day in her honor.

The Jarvis home also played a role in the Civil War. With a Union Army depot located in nearby Webster, West Virginia, General George B. McClellan used a room in the Jarvis home as his headquarters while his troops were camped in a field across the road in May or June of 1861. Throughout the war, Ann Jarvis and the women she had counseled visited nearby camps to care for wounded soldiers. Although local families fought on both sides of the conflict, Jarvis encouraged women in the county to treat any and all of the wounded, despite personal any loyalties. Once the hostilities ended, Jarvis hosted a Mothers’ Friendship Day in an effort to reunite a community torn apart by war.

In recognition of the work of Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter Anna, as well as the brief but important role it played in the Civil War, the Jarvis home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The home had been unoccupied for more than two decades, however, and it remained in extremely poor condition until the mid 1990s. Today, the home is fully restored and functions as a house museum. It is also the site of the annual Mother’s Day Founders Festival.

Julia Ward Howe

Library of Congress

“. . . Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs . . . ”

The excerpt above is from Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” originally published in 1870 in Boston where Howe had founded the Women's Journal, as an “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World.” Appalled by the carnage of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, Howe called upon all women to promote peace at home and abroad. In 1872, she proposed an annual “Mother’s Day for Peace” celebration. Despite its relatively positive reception, Howe’s holiday did not reach widespread audiences and her call for an end to war was, for many, too radical. By Howe’s death in 1910 the politically active, women-led peace movement she had begun evolved into a new kind of Mother’s Day, influenced and spearheaded by Philadelphian Anna Jarvis.

Mother’s Day Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman

National Archives and Records Administration

During the First World War, Mother’s Day celebrations highlighted connections between motherhood, war, and women’s political and patriotic duties. On Mother’s Day 1918, General John Pershing requested that all soldiers take a moment to write letters to their mothers. That same year, President Woodrow Wilson commended American mothers for offering their sons to the United States military, echoing Julia Ward Howe’s sentiments that mothers sacrifice the most in times of war.

Clifford Kennedy Berryman drew this cartoon for the Washington Evening Star. Berryman’s cartoon seems to evoke the spirit of General Pershing’s request as well as the sentiment of Mother’s Day. Amid the mayhem of trench warfare, this American soldier’s thoughts are with mother as he sits down to write her a letter.

Mothers Day Postcard, 1925

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

This 1925 Mother’s Day postcard, featuring a young mother gazing lovingly at the babe in her arms, includes a seal in lower right that notes Anna Jarvis as the founder of Mother's Day.

More than a decade earlier, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. By the time of this postcard, commercialization of the holiday was underway.

Mother’s Day War Bond Poster

National Archives and Records Administration

For over a century, the meaning and purpose of Mother’s Day has been broadly contested. Anna M. Jarvis, the Philadelphia woman widely recognized as the founder of Mother’s Day, envisioned a day on which sons and daughters would “honor the mother of their own heart.”

As Mother’s Day gained popularity, however, it was used to boost congregation numbers, promote a variety of political programs, and to sell everything from flowers and greeting cards to appliances. Howe probably would have been infuriated by this World War II poster encouraging Americans to buy war bonds for Mother’s Day.

Indeed, Jarvis became so incensed by the societal changes to Mother’s Day that in 1933 she wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt to beseech him to remove the holiday from the nation’s official calendar.

Mother’s Day Azaleafest, 2014

Township of Hamilton

Since it falls in mid-May, Mother’s Day often corresponds with some of the first outdoor events of the year. The Azalea Festival held annually at the Sayen Botanical Gardens in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, for example, is billed as a “beloved Mother’s Day tradition.” The families in this photograph are attending Azaleafest 2014, which happened to mark the 100th anniversary of the official observance of Mother’s Day in the United States.

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Time Periods

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Related Reading

Antolini, Katharine Lane, ed. Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2014.

Johnson, James P. “How Mother Got Her Day.” American Heritage 30:3 (April/May 1979) 14-21.

Jones, Kathleen W. “Mother’s Day: The Creation, Promotion and Meaning of a New Holiday in the Progressive Era.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 22, no. 2 (July 1, 1980): 175–96.

“Mothers’ Day in Philadelphia.” Advocate of Peace (1847-1884), New Series, 6, no. 6 (June 1, 1875): 38–39.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays. Princeton University Press, 1997.

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