Remembering the Woman Behind Mother's Day: Anna Jarvis

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Alex Heigl
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Few people had as complicated a relationship with Mother’s Day as Anna Jarvis did with the holiday.

Despite her tireless campaign to get the holiday recognized by the United States government, Jarvis ended up denouncing the institution she created, bankrupting herself as she fought against its perceived commercialization. How did that happen?

The roots of Mother’s Day — at least Jarvis’s involvement — date back to the 1850s. Her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, organized work clubs of mothers in their home state of West Virginia for a variety of causes. When the Civil War broke out, Jarvis senior shifted the focus of the groups from fighting infant mortality (by pushing for more sanitary conditions in women and children’s medical treatments) to tending to wounded soldiers (on both sides).

In 1868, Jarvis senior initiated what she termed Mother’s Friendship Day to try and breach the enmity between Union and Confederate loyalist mothers in West Virginia, which coincided with the efforts of one Julia Ward Howe (who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) to prod women into a more active peacekeeping role in politics with a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” that she issued in 1870.

Fast forward to 1905, when Anna Jarvis’s mother died. Anna did not take it well; she re-read all sympathy cards and letters sent to her, underlining phrases that were especially complimentary of Ann. The dates surrounding Jarvis’s first Mother’s Day celebration are somewhat fuzzy: The New York Times pegged Jarvis’s campaign as starting in 1907, while other sources peg the date at May 10 or 12, 1908. The settings, though, have remained consistent: A Methodist church in the Jarvis hometown of Grafton, West Virginia and the Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Anna had since settled. (One of her early backers was John Wanamaker. Another was H.J. Heinz.)

Jarvis didn’t attend the first Mother’s Day in West Virginia, instead devoting her time to the Philadelphia, event, but she inaugurated one of the holiday’s traditions from afar by sending 500 white carnations — Ann’s favorite flower — home to West Virginia. The flower became the holiday’s symbol: “The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying,” Jarvis explained in a 1927 interview.

Jarvis made rapid progress: By 1910, West Virginia became the first state to adopt the holiday. (Just the year prior, several U.S. Senators had dismissed the idea of the holiday, calling it — among other things — “puerile,” “absurd” and “trifling.”) In 1914, the measure to establish Mother’s Day as the second Sunday in May passed Congress and was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson.

“For Jarvis, [Mother’s Day] was a day where you’d go home to spend time with your mother and thank her for all that she did,” West Virginia Wesleyan historian Katharine Antolini told National Geographic.

“It wasn’t to celebrate all mothers. It was to celebrate the best mother you’ve ever known — your mother — as a son or a daughter. That’s why Jarvis stressed the singular ‘Mother’s Day,’ rather than the plural ‘Mothers’ Day,’ ” Antolini explained.

For her relatively rapid success in achieving her goal, Jarvis never relaxed her guard. She incorporated herself as the Mother’ Day International Association and defending the “copyright” zealously against people she thought were diluting the holiday’s meaning. Those people primarily turned out to the floral, greeting card and candy industries, which didn’t deter Jarvis: She angrily turned down a commission on the sales of Mother’s Day carnations from the Florist Telegraph Delivery. This may have proved shortsighted — Jarvis was quickly burning through her coffers defending Mother’s Day, in more ways than one.

Jarvis didn’t limit her efforts to the courtroom, either. Frank Herinm, a former football coach and faculty member at University of Notre Dame (whose idea for a “Mother’s Day” actually predated Jarvis’s‘) was the target of a 1920s statement she wrote called “Kidnapping Mother’s Day: Will You Be an Accomplice?” She organized boycotts and personally protested the efforts of people she accused of diluting Mother’s Day’s message. In 1923, she crashed a confectioner’s convention around in Philadelphia, in 1925, she took on the American War Mothers, who were using Mother’s Day carnation sales to raise money for the war effort. That year, she was actually arrested for disturbing the peace at the AWM’s convention. In 1934, she took on the Postal Service for issuing a Mother’s Day stamp featuring the painting popularly known as “Whistler’s Mother” by James Whistler. By 1944, a Newsweek article reported she had 33 Mother’s Day-related lawsuits going at once.

Jarvis never married or had children — her devotion to her holiday was her whole life. “Everything she signed was ‘Anna Jarvis, Founder of Mother’s Day,’ ” Antolini said. Even when the money ran out, she never stopped trying to get control of her baby, as it were — she lobbied Congress throughout the ’40s to see it moved and one of her last public appearances was when she was spotted going door-to-door in Philadelphia trying to collect signatures against the holiday.

Jarvis eventually became something of a recluse. By 1945, the New York Times quoted Howard S. J. Sickel, chairman of the Anna M. Jarvis Committee (set up to help pay for her care when she was eventually confined to a sanatorium) as saying: “She’s become mellow and is happy most of the time in knowing that Mother’s Day is firmly enough established to go on without her prodding.”

“But,” he added, “she was a real scrapper in her younger days.” (A possibly apocryphal bit of irony has several florists’ associations contributing to Jarvis’ care fund.)

Jarvis died in 1948. Her death warranted an obit in the Times, though none of her communiqués about the holiday were quoted. A better remembrance would have been the prayer she claimed as her inspiration for Mother’s Day, which she said she heard her mother give once: “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life.”