History of Mother’s (Mothers’) Day

Today, Mother’s Day 2020 (5/10/2020) I posted a cartoon from The New Yorker on Facebook. This prompted a response from a Facebook friend:

It would still be “Mother’s Day”… even with two mothers, it doesn’t make the holiday name change. Just sayin

This response led me to a fascinating dive into the history of the holiday (I am an academic, after all).

Modern US Mother’s Day is often traced to Anna Jarvis‘ desire to celebrate her mother, who died in 1905.  In 1908 Jarvis held a ceremony honoring her mother and all mothers at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, WV, the church she attended as a child and in which both she and her mother had been active.  She urged people to wear white carnations in honor of their mothers. Jarvis wrote that the idea for the holiday was planted in her mind by her own mother ending a Sunday school teaching in 1876 by saying

I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers [sic] day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it. (Anatolini, p. 25)

Her mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, interestingly, was the founder of Mothers’ Day Work Clubs (Anatolini p. 27) – note the placement of the apostrophe. These Clubs worked to enhance health and living conditions among the poor in West Virginia. After the Civil War, in 1868, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis held a “Mothers Friendship Day” (no apostrophe by many accounts) whose goal was to “bring together families that had been divided by the conflict” (legacyproject.org/guides/mdhistory).

The governor of West Virginia, on April 26, 1910, declared that “Mothers’ Day” should be observed on May 8, 1910, and that “all persons attend church on that day and wear a white carnation.” Disregarding the clear violation of separation of church and state (i.e., a governor mandating church attendance), this might well be the first official declaration of the holiday by a government official, and the holiday was described with the plural possessive.

In 1912 Anna Jarvis copyrighted the phrase “Second Sunday in May, Mother’s Day” and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day a day to fly the flag “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” Jarvis detested the commercialization of the holiday, and spent much of the rest of her life working against it. According to an interview on NPR, in 1943 she was committed to a sanitarium, where she remained until her death, with the sanitarium bills paid by greeting card manufacturers and florists who were presumably more than happy to have her drive to end the holiday ended. 

So, thus far we have the person normally credited with the establishment of the holiday, Anna Jarvis, being driven by a desire to honor her own mother and her mother’s desire for such an observance.  The result was the first official recognition of the holiday, as Mothers’ Day, in 1910, and President Wilson’s proclamation of Mother’s Day in 1914. There is a deeper, story, though.

Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist who worked for women’s suffrage and who is probably best known for writing the lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, is often credited with having called for Mothers’ Day with her 1870 Appeal to womanhood throughout the world  (often called The Mother’s Day Proclamation although she did not call it that nor did she refer to “Mother’s”–or “Mothers'”–Day in that piece). She did, however, shortly thereafter call for the organization of a holiday celebrating mothers. She recalls this in her 1899 autobiography as a desire for

… a festival which should be observed as mothers’ day, and which should be dedicated to the advocacy of peace doctrines. (Howe, 1899)

Note that Howe used the plural possessive “mothers'” in describing her holiday.  An early celebration was documented by the New York Times documenting the first anniversary of one of these observances in 1874. The Times referred to it in the singular: “Mother’s Day.” Howe’s use of the plural possessive occurred in her Reminiscences, written in 1899 – well before Jarvis established the holiday and copyrighted the term “Mother’s Day.” So here is a first acknowledgement of the celebration of a Mother’s Day (the New York Times used the singular despite Howe’s use of the plural) having occurred in 1873.

There are other claimants to the origination of the holiday:

Harriet Stoddard Lee is sometimes credited with establishing the holiday in California in 1903, when she convinced a gathering of the Native Daughters of the Golden West to set aside a day to honor mothers (an idea that she once claimed to have implemented earlier when she was a school teacher). Her involvement in the establishment of the holiday is documented in the US Congressional Record, May 5, 1966, pp 9994 ff.

California lore suggests that the day was officially recognized by Governor Gillette in a proclamation around 1909, but the only documentation I can find for this is an article in a 1909 edition of The California Weekly indicating that Gillette could not officially recognize the holiday  (Note the plural possessive.) Gillette encouraged men to wear a white rose to honor their mothers, similar to the practice of Jarvis  urging people to wear white carnations in honor of mothers. This is sufficient to document that there was discussion of the holiday in California, but it does not link Lee to the effort. Even if she could be definitively linked to the holiday, her professed involvement came well after Julia Ward Howe’s efforts.

Albion, Michigan also claims a role in the establishment of the holiday, arguing that the first known observance of the holiday occurred there. In the 1880s the Albion Methodist Church started celebrating Mother’s Day in honor of all mothers, initiated by a desire to honor Juliet Calhoun Blakeley, who stepped into the pulpit on a Sunday in 1877 to complete a sermon for a distraught minister who could not continue.  The establishment of the holiday is recognized by a state historical marker. Albion historian Frank Passic documents the event in his History of Albion, Michigan, and it is also documented here. This early celebration came shortly after Howe’s earliest documented event.

So what’s the take-home message? Julia Ward Howe might rightly be considered the originator of the holiday. She pushed for a celebration of mothers in the 1870s, and organized Mothers’ Day events in Boston and New York City annually. Her idea, though, never gained traction, but as a well-known writer and suffragette, she undoubtedly influenced the thinking of others. It is likely (I’ll keep digging for evidence) that both Lee in California and Jarvis in West Virginia had read her Appeal to womanhood throughout the world. This work would also probably have been known to the good people of Albion’s Methodist Church. And because Howe described it in the plural as Mothers’ Day, perhaps we should honor that mother of six by following her practice (and that of The California Weekly in 1909 and of the first official declaration by the West Virginia governor in 1910). Wherever you place the apostrophe, honor your mother(s)!

Anatolini, Katherine Lane (2009). Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day (PhD Diss). West Virginia University.


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