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From the Civil War to Hallmark: the History of Mother's Day

WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne

My dad and I have this tradition where we get up early every Sunday morning and drive together to get coffee before church. Once we’re feeling awake, we ask each other questions and discuss new topics every week, and one of our recent Big Questions was: where did Mother’s Day come from? So here it is, folks: a Mother’s Day blog, a month late!

In 1858, a Virginian woman named Ann Jarvis started “Mother’s Day Work Clubs”, groups for bereaved and struggling mothers that helped them learn how to raise children, treat illnesses, and protect their families from disease. She taught important lessons on health —such as boiling water before drinking it and inspecting milk to make sure it was safe — and worked with her physician brother to help treat dying women and children. A grieving mother herself, Ann was pregnant with her sixth child at the time, but she would go on to birth thirteen—only four of whom would survive to adulthood. She also worked to raise money for underprivileged families, relying on charitable donors to purchase pharmaceuticals for the sick and education for the needy. Just twenty-six years old, she felt it her calling to teach mothers about combating childhood disease and death during infancy. And little did she know that during the Civil War, when the United States would lose an estimated 750,000 men, her services would be more important than ever.

Like many families during the war, she and her family took in wounded soldiers and continued their efforts to save the sons of America; but her story is unique in that she declared complete neutrality, believing that every soldier brought to her was someone’s son, and deserved healing—no matter what side of the war he was on. Ann’s healing movement was perhaps one of the only American support groups in history with no political agenda whatsoever. And after the battles ended, her unmatched caring nature and kindness activism were beacons of light in the midst of the post-war carnage. She worked to form support groups for mothers who had lost children on the battlefield, and began her efforts to unify mothers and sons, both Union and Confederate, who had been poisoned by the antebellum hatred and division of the United States.

Ann died in 1905, leaving behind her a legacy of selflessness. And though she would no longer be leading the mother’s groups, speaking at churches, or caring for the sick, her daughter Anna was there to carry on the torch. One of the four surviving Jarvis children, Anna cared for her mother in her last years of life after her father died and hoped to inspire future generations to act as Ann did.

Anna said her inspiration for Mother’s Day came from a concluding prayer Ann gave in one of her Sunday school lessons: “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. She is entitled to it.” So, on May 10, 1908, Anna held the first Mother’s Day celebration at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. But for Anna, local celebrations weren’t enough to honor her mother’s monumental effect on women, and she began petitioning for America to officially honor mothers. Anna, a women’s rights activist, believed that there were already enough holidays geared towards men’s achievements. Shouldn’t there be at least one holiday celebrating mothers? They are, after all, the givers of life! After the success of her first Mother’s Day, Anna threw herself enthusiastically into writing letters — letters to local leaders, women and men of societal and religious prominence, even the president Woodrow Wilson!

However, it wasn’t until 1914 that her efforts paid off on a national scale, and Mother’s Day was officially recognized as a national holiday. President Woodrow Wilson signed off on the declaration, proclaiming the day a “public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country” Woo-hoo, right?

Wrong! As time went on, commercialism took center stage on the holiday. Hallmark began making Mother’s Day cards in the early 1920’s, chocolate factories boomed, and floral sales soared. Anna had proclaimed carnations the flower of choice for mothers, saying that the flower hugs the petals to its center even as it dies, just the way a mother does with her children. A beautiful point, to be sure; but unfortunately, this proclamation only served to promote more meaningless gifts instead of acts of service.

Let’s take a moment and thank history that Twitter wasn’t invented when Anna was alive. Seeing the ways in which companies like Hallmark had capitalized on her mother’s memory with greeting cards, she remarked, “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. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”

Remember that part in Star Wars where Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Anakin Skywalker, “YOU HAVE BECOME THE VERY THING YOU SWORE TO DESTROY”? It’s kind of like that, but backwards. Like many other celebrations, the holiday Anna worked so hard to create had been turned into another commercialist venture. A passionate woman by nature, she gathered her seventy-nine-year-old courage and began another Mother’s Day campaign—only this time, she worked to abolish it. By 1943, Anna had organized another petition to remove Mother’s Day from the national calendar…but, after her death in 1948, the petition was discarded and her group disbanded.

This year, 107 years after Mother’s Day was nationally recognized, I watched a commercial on television that stated “Want to give Mom the gift she deserves? Buy her the latest smartphone today!” I wonder what Ann and Anna would think, how they would react, and what movement they would create, if they were around to see that today.

Anna Jarvis, circa 1909

I believe my mom deserves every single gift in the entire world, but at the same time, I know that material gifts aren’t the way to thank her for all the work she’s done for me. As a matter of fact, when she found out that I spent $24 dollars on a bouquet for her, she got mad at me. And as I wrote this blog, I began to think about how many mothers out there truly want things like flowers (what if they have allergies?) or chocolates (what if they’re diabetic?) or smartphones (what if they have electrical field sensitivities?).

Why did we stray from the original intent behind Mother’s Day? How did we allow commercialism to influence other holidays? And what do you think Ann and Anna would do about it if they were alive today?

Pssst! Season Three of Reconnecting Roots is right around the corner, and with it comes the stories of many other American heroes just like Anna! In the meantime, check out our Youtube channel for lots of new extra content videos, or give our podcast a listen wherever you stream your music!

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