She Invented Mother’s Day — then Waged a Lifelong Campaign Against It

Library of Congress
Anna Jarvis, circa 1909.

While dining at a Philadelphia tearoom owned by her friend John Wanamaker, Anna Jarvis ordered a salad – then dumped it on the floor.

Jarvis hated that the dish was called “Mother’s Day Salad,” named after a celebration of mothers that she had pioneered years earlier.

The strong-willed woman saw it not as an honor but an affront to a tradition she held so dear. To her, it was a cheap marketing gimmick to profit off an idea that she considered to be hers, and hers alone.

The incident was recounted in a newspaper article published sometime in the early 1900s, years after Jarvis organized the first Mother’s Day service in the country, said Katharine Antolini, a historian who has studied Jarvis and how Mother’s Day became a national holiday.

Jarvis spent decades fighting an uphill battle to keep Mother’s Day from becoming the commercialized holiday that it is today. To her, it was simply a day to honor mothers, and she started it to commemorate her own. So when people co-opted her idea for other purposes, Jarvis was incensed.

She started fights, threatened lawsuits, wrote letters to politicians, issued bitter news releases, organized protests, fought with Eleanor Roosevelt, and demanded audiences with presidents, among other actions.

She even claimed legal copyright to the holiday, Antolini said. Her letters were signed “Anna Jarvis, Founder of Mother’s Day.”

“It became a part of her identity,” the historian said. “It was completely tied up in her ego.”

The fight that consumed Jarvis was waged in vain, and her campaign drained the modest fortune she’d inherited from her family. She died in a sanitarium in 1948 at age 84 – alone, blind and penniless.

If she were alive today, Antolini said, Jarvis would have been thrilled that Mother’s Day remains popular.

“But she’d be upset that people don’t remember her,” the historian said.

She would probably be equally angered to know that the holiday is celebrated in part through Mother’s Day specials and sales, Hallmark cards and floral arrangements.

Antolini, chair of the history department at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said she began studying Jarvis and the history of Mother’s Day in the 1990s, when she visited the International Mother’s Day Shrine, in Grafton, W.Va. It’s a museum of the church where the first Mother’s Day service was held.

In the church’s kitchen area, Antolini said, she found several boxes of documents that belonged to Jarvis. She volunteered to archive them and spent months poring over the records.

She learned about the childless woman who dedicated her life to the obsessive pursuit of creating a holiday for mothers.

“The surface image of her is that she was this crazy spinster who dedicated her life to this movement and fought everybody who tried to take her day away from her,” Antolini said. “It was her life to create this holiday, to perpetuate it and have it spread nationally.”

Jarvis, born in Webster, W.Va., was inspired to create Mother’s Day by her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, a Sunday school teacher who helped start Mother’s Day Work Clubs to teach women how to care for their children.

After one lecture in 1876, Ann Reeves Jarvis prayed that somebody would create a day commemorating mothers for their service to humanity, Antolini said.

Twelve-year-old Anna Jarvis remembered that.

Her mother died in 1905, and Jarvis, then in her 40s, promised at her gravesite that she’d be the one to answer her prayer.

Over the next years, Jarvis embarked on a relentless letter-writing campaign to persuade the governor of every state to declare the second Sunday of May – the closest Sunday to her mother’s death anniversary – Mother’s Day.

She wrote to Mark Twain, President Theodore Roosevelt and any other powerful figure she could think of to help with her cause, Antolini said. She also sought the help of Wanamaker, the Philadelphia businessman and her friend.

The first Mother’s Day service was held one morning in 1908 at St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton. She bought hundreds of carnations, her mother’s favorite flower, for the service. A bigger celebration was held that afternoon at Wanamaker’s auditorium in Pennsylvania, where Jarvis spoke.

From there, Mother’s Day took off so quickly that the next year, Sonora Smart Dodd – who was raised by her father after her mother died in childbirth – heard a Mother’s Day sermon in Spokane, Wash., and helped create Father’s Day. In 1910, West Virginia passed a law designating Mother’s Day a holiday, and other states followed.

But Jarvis was nowhere near done.

She continued writing letters and traveling, all on her own dime, to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. The amount of her correspondence grew so much that she had to buy a second house for storage.

On May 8, 1914, Congress passed a law declaring the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day. The following day, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the first national Mother’s Day as a time to honor mothers whose sons had died in war.

Mother’s Day became a national cause, but not the one Jarvis had in mind.

She spent the next years railing against flower shop owners, cardmakers and the candy industry for profiting off the holiday.

“They’re commercializing my Mother’s Day,” she complained in a letter to newspapers, according to a 1986 Washington Post story. “This is not what I intended.”

A news release she issued, according to a 1994 Post article, read: “WHAT WILL YOU DO to route charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?”

She threatened to sue New York Gov. Al Smith over plans for a Mother’s Day meeting in 1923, according to a Post obituary published in 1948. In 1931, she fought with New York first lady Eleanor Roosevelt over a rival Mother’s Day committee.

At one point, she incorporated the Mother’s Day International Association. It’s unclear whether the corporation had other members, according to the obituary.

Even charities became the target of her disdain. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, charities held fundraising events on Mother’s Day to help mothers in need. Jarvis resented that.

“She didn’t want it to be a beggar’s day,” Antolini said. “She didn’t want the day to be turned into just another charity event. You don’t pity mothers; you honor them.”

In studying Jarvis, Antolini came to sympathize with the tenacious and fiercely independent woman who remained single and childless at a time when women were expected to do the opposite.

“You get behind the motivation for why she’s doing it. She doesn’t sound crazy. Her argument is sound,” Antolini said. “Many times, you’d feel she’s justified in being angered about these things.”

But she also felt that Jarvis had a narrow view of what motherhood is about. Hers was the perspective of a child, of a daughter who deeply loved her mother.

“Children have a very simplistic view of motherhood,” Antolini said. “Those women who then would become mothers, they have a completely different view of motherhood. It’s becoming politically active to save the lives of mothers of other children.”

By the early 1940s, Jarvis had become undernourished and was losing her eyesight. Friends and associates placed her in a sanitarium in West Chester, Pa. She died Nov. 24, 1948.

Mother’s Day has become one of the most profitable U.S. holidays, with annual spending steadily growing since 2006. This year, consumers are expected to spend a near-record $33.5 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.

We can imagine how Jarvis would feel about that.