May 1st is the birthday of Anna Jarvis, generally credited as the founder of Mother’s Day. Mothers in the U.S. and elsewhere owe a ‘Thank You’ to Anna, a woman who never married, and never had children.
Anna carried on the efforts of her mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, to lobby for a national holiday honoring mothers. The elder Mrs. Jarvis died in 1905. It was Anna who campaigned for a decade, forming committees, writing to officials, visiting churches and ultimately raising broader support. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May “Mother’s Day,” and Anna turned her focus to getting similar holidays established abroad.
If only the story ended there. Instead, I think Mother’s Day drove Anna a little bit crazy.
As you might imagine, it didn’t take long at all for America’s card, candy, floral and gifts industries to seize on the new holiday.
Anna had visions of sons and daughters sharing hand-written sentiments with their mothers, not pre-manufactured greeting cards. “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit,” she once complained. By the 1920s, she was actively working against its commercialization. The proper Miss Jarvis was even arrested for protesting at a Mother’s Day carnation sale.
Then, Anna tried a different strategy after securing the trademark and copyright for the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day.” As photographers, candlemakers, jewelers and other retailers continued to make money from the holiday, Anna threatened to sue them all. She turned against old friends and supporters who dared to advance their businesses through a connection to Mother’s Day. No one knows how many of her threats made it to court, but relationships and respect evaporated.
The historian at the International Mother’s Day Shrine in West Virginia tells a story that when Anna noticed “Mother’s Day Salad” on a restaurant menu, “she ordered it, dumped it on the floor, got up and left.”
Occasionally, people would say that suffragist and poet Julia Ward Howe deserved partial credit for the Mother’s Day holiday, and Anna would go nuts. You may know Ms. Howe as the lyricist of Battle Hymn of the Republic, but she was also passionate about her own annual event, Mother’s Day for Peace, held each June for more than 20 years before Anna’s campaign began.
Anna’s mother wanted a holiday to honor the full scope of all that motherhood is and gives to the world, Anna, on the other hand, was committed to a more intimate, narrow vision of a direct child-to-mother tribute. In 1923, Anna even threatened to sue the mayor of New York because he planned a city-wide Mother’s Day extravaganza.
It gets worse.
In 1935, Anna went after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, accusing her of “crafty plotting” against Mother’s Day. All because of a Mother’s Day reference in fundraising materials for charities fighting maternal and infant mortality.
All that fervor began to eat through the modest inheritance Anna received from her mother. She was living in poverty with her sister when she died in 1948.
The State of West Virginia is rightfully proud of Ann and Anna Jarvis: Anna’s birthplace is now a museum honoring the Jarvis women as well as the house’s role as a Union General’s headquarters during the Civil War.