Mothers everywhere will rejoice. So will the greeting card companies, flower shops, and telephone providers.
Though celebrated in pockets in previous years, Mother’s Day has been an official holiday since May 9, 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as a day to honor the nation’s mothers.
“The signing was not that important to Wilson in a political sense. But it would not have taken much persuasion for Wilson to sign it,” said Andrew Phillips, curator of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Stanton, Va. “Strong women were greatly influential in his life, including his mother, his first wife, and his three daughters.” Ellen Wilson, the President’s first wife, died three months after the proclamation.
The concept for Mother’s Day was nothing new. Local celebrations were common in America, though nothing was accepted nationally. Some attribute the idea to Julia Ward Howe, composer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” who first organized a “mother’s day for peace” on June 2, 1872.
Many also cite Anna Jarvis, a Grafton, W. Va., housewife who began the push for the holiday to honor her own mother, who died in 1905. As early as 1868, the elder Jarvis established a local committee for a “Mother’s Friendship Day” to heal wounds in families broken by the Civil War. Prior to that, she had also organized “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to ease the suffering of ill and wounded Civil War troops.
In 1908, Jarvis organized official commemorations in Grafton as well as Philadelphia. In 1910, West Virginia declared Mother’s Day an official holiday. Jarvis, though, clearly had a flair for self-promotion. In 1912, she trademarked the phrases “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May” and created an international association for the holiday.
Though Jarvis claimed much of the credit herself, the establishment of Mother’s Day was also promoted within the women’s suffrage movement. “The suffragettes were among the first to call for the holiday,” remarked Phillips. “Of course, the Mother’s Day of what everyone envisioned then is much different than what it became.”
Eventually, 46 states celebrated the holiday in some form. In 1913, Congress passed a resolution for the observance of Mother’s Day by government officials. The following year, the legislature approved a joint resolution calling for the official designation of the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
Wilson signed the proclamation on May 9, only one day ahead of the second Sunday of the calendar. As a result, there was not a lot of fanfare in the holiday’s first year.
“But it caught on fast,” said Phillips. “Hallmark began producing greeting cards by the early 1920s, and soon the holiday was moving closer to what we know today.”
Jarvis, though, watched the popularity with disdain. Angered that Mother’s Day had become commercialized, she spent her efforts and inheritance to fight for its removal. She found the greeting card craze particularly distasteful, lamenting that cards were “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.”
In one instance, Jarvis reportedly filed a lawsuit to block a Mother’s Day festival and was arrested for disturbing the peace at a sale of carnations for war mothers in 1925. She died penniless in 1948.
Ironically, Anna Jarvis never had children, unlike millions of American women before and since. According to 2010 Census figures, the United States had 85.4 million mothers, and some 81 percent of American women became mothers by age 40 to 44.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher from Carlinville, Ill. who is the proud son of his own mother, Janice. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.