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Happy Mother’s Day! The real history of Mother’s Day in the United States might surprise you. Three women—who championed efforts toward better health, welfare, peace, and love—contributed to this day. This is also a bittersweet tale. Learn more.
The Mother’s Day holiday in the United States—always celebrated on the second Sunday in May—wasn’t born out a desire to simply treat mothers to a day off or to buy them gifts! It essentially began as a women’s movement to better the lives of other Americans.
Who Invented Mother’s Day?
The creation of a national Mother’s Day is primarily attributed to three women: Ann Reeves Jarvis, Julia Ward Howe, and Ann’s daughter, Anna M. Jarvis.
Ann Reeves Jarvis
Known as “Mother Jarvis,” Ann Reeves Jarvis was a young Appalachian homemaker who taught Sunday school lessons. She also was a lifelong activist who, in the mid-1800s, had organized “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” in West Virginia to combat unsanitary living conditions. Reeves Jarvis was concerned about the high infant mortality rate, especially pervasive in Appalachia, and wanted to educate and help mothers who needed it the most.
During the Civil War, Mother Jarvis had also organized women’s brigades, encouraging women to help without regard for which side their men had chosen. After the war, she proposed a Mothers’ Friendship Day to promote peace between former Union and Confederate families.
Julia Ward Howe
Julia Ward Howe was a famous poet and reformer. During the Civil War, she volunteered for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, helping them to provide hygienic environments for hospitals and ensure sanitary conditions during the care of sick and wounded soldiers. In 1861, she authored the famous Civil War anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was first published in February 1862.
Around 1870, Julia Ward Howe called for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” dedicated to the celebration of peace and the eradication of war. As expressed in what is called her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” from 1870, Howe felt that mothers should gather to prevent the cruelty of war and the waste of life since mothers of mankind alone bear and know the cost.
Howe’s version of Mother’s Day was held in Boston and other locations for about 30 years, but died a quick death in the years preceding World War I.
Nothing new happened in this department until 1907, when a Miss Anna M. Jarvis, of Philadelphia, took up the banner.
Anna M. Jarvis
After her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died in 1905, Miss Anna Jarvis from Philadelphia wished to memorialize her mother’s life and started campaigning for a national day to honor all mothers. “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,” Ann Jarvis once said. “She is entitled to it.”
Anna’s ideas was less about public service and more about simply honoring the role of motherhood and the sacrifices made in the home. She bombarded public figures and various civic organizations with telegrams, letters, and in-person discussions. She addressed groups large and small. At her own expense, she wrote, printed, and distributed booklets extolling her idea.
Why Mother’s Day in the U.S. is in May
In May of 1907, Anna memorialized her mother’s lifelong activism with a memorial service held at the Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where Anna’s mother had taught. The following year, on May 10, a Mother’s Day service was held at that same church to acknowledge all mothers. Thus was born the idea that the second Sunday in May be set aside to honor every mother, whether living or deceased.
Her efforts came to the attention of the mayor of Philadelphia, who proclaimed a local Mother’s Day. From the local level she went on to Washington, D.C. The politicians there knew a good thing when they saw it and were quick to lend verbal support.
While West Virginia was the first state to officially adopt the holiday, others followed suit. Proclamation of the day by the various states led Representative J. Thomas Heflin of Alabama and Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas to present a joint resolution to Congress that Mother’s Day be observed nationwide. The resolution was passed by both houses.
In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill designating the second Sunday in May as a legal holiday to be called “Mother’s Day”—dedicated “to the best mother in the world, your mother.” For the first few years, the day was observed as a legal holiday, but in absolute simplicity and reverence—church services were held in honor of all mothers, living and dead.
A Bittersweet Legacy
According to many sources, Anna simply wanted to honor her mother, claiming that her mother was the originator of the real Mother’s Day. As the holiday went mainstream, she was dismayed to see it become more commercialized with the sending of greeting cards and flowers; she also didn’t even want the holiday promoted by women’s organizations, charitable foundations, or public health reformers to raise money—somewhat ironic considering her mother’s public health mission. In 1948, Anna Jarvis died in a sanitarium in a state of dementia.
Mother’s Day Today
Mother’s Day endures and evolves. Just as Mother’s Day was the creation of multiple women, the modern Mother’s Day celebrates the varied roles of mothers today. We commemorate the many ways mothers have fought to better the lives of their children, from social welfare to non-violence. We also honor the way mothers have raised and nurtured their children with love and courage.