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If the commercialization of American holidays frustrates you — the cards, the flowers, the fanfare — try being Anna Jarvis. She’s credited with creating Mother’s Day. And like a true Philly fighter, she railed against what it had become until the day she died.
Most historians agree the origin of Mother’s Day can be traced to this Philadelphia woman, who worked her whole life to establish a holiday to honor motherhood and traditional family values — at a time when feminist activity was rising and women were begging to work. That’s the message relayed on a historical marker in the shadow of City Hall at the intersection of Market and Juniper streets.
But to understand the story of how Mother’s Day came to be in the first half of the 20th century, you’ve got to start 30 years prior.
While Jarvis is seen as the founder (more on that later), the Philadelphia Encyclopedia notes Jarvis wasn’t the first person to propose a day honoring moms, and wasn’t even the first person in Philadelphia to do so.
In 1870, Julia Ward Howe — the composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic — put a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in Women’s Journal, a weekly publication in Boston. It was titled “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World,” and it called on women to use a day denoted “Mother’s Day” to promote peace following the Civil War.
Howe wanted Mother’s Day to be celebrated on June 2. Several cities did hold special services on that day between 1873 and 1913, per the Encyclopedia, but the holiday didn’t reach widespread audiences and was considered “too radical” by some. Still, “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.”
Around the same time Howe was pressing her feminist message, a woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis was working on a different type of “Mother’s Day” in West Virginia. She helped form “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach women how to properly care for children, according to West Virginia’s division of culture and history. She organized “Mother’s Friendship Day” events meant to unite former Union and Confederate loyalists.
But Mother’s Day wasn’t officially recognized until Reeves Jarvis’ daughter Anna came around.
According to a National Geographic account, Jarvis moved to Philadelphia with her brother when she was 28 to work at Fidelity Life Insurance. As her mother’s health started to deteriorate, she moved her mother to the city to care for her, too. Ann Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, and Anna Jarvis reportedly spent years in intense mourning. By 1908, Jarvis had thought up a way to honor her “unselfish Christian” mother: Mother’s Day.
But she needed support. She put together a Mother’s Day Committee of sorts that included businessman John Wanamaker (yes, of the Wanamaker department store) and H.J. Heinz (uh-huh). The idea was that Mother’s Day would have roots in a church celebration and, by 1910, the World’s Sunday School Association had endorsed Jarvis’ vision.
Popularity grew, and quickly. Members of the clergy liked the holiday because it drew more folks to their churches. Wanamaker pushed for a bill to be introduced in Congress to formally recognize the holiday. And by 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a resolution recognizing Mother’s Day and formally observing it on the second Sunday of May.
Here’s where things started to sour.
Commercialization happened fast. The retail and floral industries started cashing in not long after the holiday became official. Historian Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College, who studied Jarvis and the origins of Mother’s Day, told NatGeo that this incensed Jarvis, who wanted the holiday to remain reverent.
A quote often attributed to Jarvis (but not found in any documents): “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.”
Jarvis threatened lawsuits, wrote letters, organized protests, took out ads and even criticized former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using the day as a mechanism to fund raise for charities. Jarvis went so far as to ask FDR in 1933 to remove the holiday from the country’s official calendar.
It didn’t work, obviously, but her efforts to squash the holiday she’d created continued through the 1940s. Jarvis died at the Marshall Square Sanitarium in West Chester in 1948.
“This woman, who died penniless in a sanitarium in a state of dementia, was a woman who could have profited from Mother’s Day if she wanted to,” Antolini told NatGeo. “But she railed against those who did, and it cost her everything, financially and physically.”