Before the brunches, before the gifts and greeting cards, Mother’s Day was a time for mourning women to remember fallen soldiers and work for peace. When the holiday went commercial, its greatest champion gave everything to fight it, dying penniless and broken in a sanitarium. Of course, Mother’s Day marched on without her and is today celebrated, in various forms, on a global scale.
As early as the 1850s, women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination. The groups also tended wounded soldiers of both sides during the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865. In the postwar years Jarvis and other women organized Mother’s Friendship Day picnics and other events as pacifist events uniting former foes. But it was her daughter Anna who was most responsible for what we call Mother’s Day—and who would spend most of her later life fighting what it had become.
“Mother’s Day,” Not “Mothers’ Day”. “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.
Moved by the 1905 death of her own mother, Anna Jarvis, who never had children of her own, was the driving force behind the first Mother’s Day observances in 1908. Largely through Jarvis’s efforts, Mother’s Day came to be observed in a growing number of cities and states until U.S. President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May in 1914 for the holiday.
But Jarvis’s success soon turned to failure, at least in her own eyes. Anna Jarvis’s idea of an intimate Mother’s Day quickly became a commercial gold mine centering on the buying and giving of flowers, candies, and greeting cards—a development which deeply disturbed Jarvis. It was more than just the spike in flower and greeting card sales that she was against: Jarvis also didn’t want what she saw as “her” holiday co-opted by women’s organizations, charitable foundations or public health reformers, Antolini wrote in her book. She set about dedicating herself and her sizable inheritance to returning Mother’s Day to its reverent roots.
Jarvis incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association and tried to retain some control of the holiday. She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and even attacked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities. Her fervent attempts to reform Mother’s Day continued until at least the early 1940s. In 1948 she died at 84 in Philadelphia’s Marshall Square Sanitarium.
In the end, neither mother nor daughter were successful in implementing their vision for a perfect Mothers’/Mother’s Day. The real winners, of course, are the greeting card & flower industry.