History time: The woman who created Mother’s day and regretted it

Clio Koh, Staffer

The story of Anna Jarvis, the woman who founded Mother’s Day, who then spent the rest of her life trying to make it go away.

On May 8, 1905, Anna Jarvis was devastated. Her mother Ann Jarvis had just passed away, leaving behind a legacy of social work. Most notable was her effort to heal the post-Civil War nation by creating a “Mother’s Friendship Day,” inviting both Union and Confederate mothers to reconcile with each other. Before the war, Ann Jarvis worked to create the Mother’s Work Group, an assembly of mothers that acted as a community task force. Their main priority was to combat unsanitary conditions that harmed children. Having given birth to six children, four of which fell ill and died, Ann herself experienced the consequences of disease firsthand. The personal tragedy drove her to rally community action. 

Her tireless work gave Ann such a good reputation among her neighbors that she became the stock of local legend. Stories surrounding her became dramatized and myth-like. One such story goes: “The first land battle of the Civil War took place [nearby the town] and the first soldier killed was killed there. Tempers were short and passions ran high as [a] young soldier’s body was brought into town. A request was made for a prayer to be offered over his body by the assembled townspeople. It was a moment of high tension, as most of the men present were armed and any provocative statement might have set off a partisan battle. [Ann] Maria Jarvis, a tiny red-haired figure, came forward and prayed over the dead soldier. The crowd became calm and dispersed peacefully.”

Ann Jarvis was remembered by her community and her daughter Anna as a compassionate figure, so much so that the first formal “Mother’s Day Commemoration” was organized by her daughter in her honor. It was a service held on the second Sunday of May, and Anna Jarvis had the people in attendance wear white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower. Anna originally planned to write a biographical memorial of her mother, but instead, the sentiments behind the project soon spiraled into the foundation for a national holiday.

Through much campaigning and letter writing, Anna Jarvis was able to make the bill pass through Congress with little resistance. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill in 1914, proclaiming the second Sunday of May “as a public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” The spelling of “Mother’s” in “Mother’s Day” was intended by Jarvis. She wanted it to be “a singular possessive, for each family to honor its own mother”.

Soon, churches and families began to celebrate the new national holiday. Businesses, such as flower shops and candy shops, also caught on to the holiday. Thus, a rush of Mother’s Day cards, flower bundles, and candy came to be mass-produced and marketed. These products were popularized and consumers bought them readily. Even to this day, flower sales are at one of their peaks during Mother’s Day. Moreover, many public interest groups began to use the holiday to make political statements.

Jarvis was not happy about that. She felt that Mother’s day had become too commercialized and publicized, estranging it from its original purpose: a day of quiet reverence and gratitude for one’s own mother. On the matter of pre-made cards, she declared, “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world. Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”

In an attempt to stop the businesses from, in her eyes, taking advantage of the holiday she had created, she tried to boycott the florists who raised the price of carnations during May. She threatened to sue the New York Mother’s Day Committee for planning a large celebration, leading the event to be canceled. She even disrupted a convention of the American War Mothers, a group that had adapted the white carnation as its emblem, angering many of the group’s members who called for Jarvis’ arrest, though the charges were dismissed. 

Jarvis went on to actively fight against the holiday for the rest of her life, even lobbying to have the holiday removed from the National calendar, though to no success. One story described her intense loathing of commercialized practices so strongly that once, when she saw a special Mother’s Day salad in a restaurant menu, she ordered the entree just to dump it on the floor, before paying her expenses and leaving.   

When it was clear that the holiday was not going away, Anna Jarvis withdrew from the public. Bitter and angry, she told a reporter (disguised as a delivery man as she refused to talk to reporters) that she regretted creating the holiday in the first place. 

At the age of 80, Jarvis was placed in an asylum, where she died penniless four years later, due to her various lawsuits. She also refused to make a cent off the holiday she created. Alas, she never knew her stay at the asylum was partly paid for by grateful florists who thanked her for creating Mother’s Day.