Anna Jarvis: The Woman Who Invented Mother’s Day (and Grew to Hate It)

Anna Jarvis (Photo: AP)

By Elise Solé, Shine Staff
Healthy Living – Tue, May 6, 2014

Mother’s Day might be a time to shower your mom with cards and gifts, but the woman responsible for the holiday would tell you not to bother. That’s because the late Anna Jarvis, who founded Mother’s Day (unofficially on May 10, 1906) to honor her own mother, grew to despise the day for its sappy commercialization. 

“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 famously told greeting card and candy executives. “And candy! You take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A petty sentiment.”

Mother’s Day, which, on May 11, will celebrate its 100th anniversary, didn’t begin with boxes of chocolate and prewritten greeting cards, but rather as a memorial for someone’s mother.

In 1906, one year after the death of Jarvis’s mother, well-known public health activist Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, her daughter commemorated her death by throwing an honorary service at her home for her closest friends. Over the following two years, Jarvis continued holding memorial services for her mother on the anniversary of her death, even hosting an event at Philadelphia department store John Wanamakers (now operated by Macy’s) in 1908, which 1,500 people attended. That same year, in Virginia, where the elder Jarvis had lived for most of her life, her church held a memorial service in her honor and distributed 500 white carnations (her favorite flower) to attendees.

Anna Jarvis began to grow adamant that people set aside one day a year to honor mothers around the country, and she began campaigning on a local and state level to enact her idea into law. “Anna chose the second Sunday in May, because it was the closest day to her mother’s May 10th death and she also liked the idea of Sunday being a holy day,” Katharine Lane Antolini, PhD, a historian at West Virginia Wesleyan College, tells Yahoo Shine. “She called magazine and newspaper editors, governors — anyone who would help spread the word.” In 1912, Jarvis even quit her job at an advertising agency and founded the Mother’s Day International Association, an organization she ran out of her home with the goal of making Mother’s Day a national holiday.
By 1914, her efforts paid off. Mother’s Day was celebrated in every U.S. state, and President Woodrow Wilson declared the day an official (but not federal) holiday. It was a pretty impressive campaign in the days before social media.

Jarvis was thrilled and wrote to Wilson to thank him, saying that the day would be “a great Home Day of our country for sons and daughters to honor their mothers and fathers and homes in a way that will perpetuate family ties and give emphasis to true home life.”

Except it didn’t pan out that way. Greeting card and candy companies began using Mother’s Day in their advertising campaigns. White carnations — her mother’s favorite flower — were soon adopted as the holiday’s symbol, and charities used the holiday as part of their fundraising slogans. Naturally, this didn’t sit well with Jarvis. “She felt that Mother’s Day should be celebrated by staying home with one’s mom and thanking her for everything she does; if anyone couldn’t make it home, a short, simple letter would suffice,” says Antolini. “She especially disagreed with charities using the day to their advantage, since Anna didn’t want mothers — not even the poorest — to be pitied.”

In an attempt to regain control over the holiday, Jarvis began organizing boycotts, staging demonstrations, and threatening companies with lawsuits over intellectual property theft. Eventually, Jarvis grew to despise the holiday she so lovingly created and rebelled against it. 

For example, while once dining at the Tea Room at Wanamakers in Philadelphia, the store that originally helped generate publicity for the holiday, Jarvis spotted a “Mother’s Day salad” on the menu. She ordered it, and when it arrived, she stood up, dumped it on the floor, left money on the table, and stormed out. In 1923, Jarvis crashed a candy confectioner’s conference, staging a protest, and two years later, she ambushed a convention hosted by the American War Mothers (a patriotic group that supports veterans) because it used “Mother’s Day” as part of its fundraising efforts. She was arrested on charges of disturbing the peace. Jarvis also routinely railed against Eleanor Roosevelt, who supported certain charities that Jarvis believed capitalized on her holiday. And she compared Frances Perkins, the first female secretary of labor, to Mussolini after discovering that Perkins supported a women’s health clinic that used Mother’s Day in its advertising campaign.

“It wouldn’t be fair to call Anna ‘crazy,’ because so many women of this time were written off for fighting for what they believed in,” says Antolini. “She was passionate and determined.”

Jarvis continued fighting for the abolishment of Mother’s Day until she died penniless in 1948 at the age of 84 at Philadelphia’s Marshall Square Sanitarium, a now-closed mental asylum, where she lived out the last four years of her life. Jarvis didn’t get the chance to restore Mother’s Day to its original sentiment, but honoring your own mother with a heartfelt “thank you” and some quality time would, of course, be a nice gesture. Jarvis would approve.

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