Mother’s Day

Did you know that more phone calls are made on Mother’s Day than any other day of the year? Those chats with mother can spike phone traffic as much as 37%! 

Although the United States did not proclaim Mother’s Day an official holiday until 1914, celebrations of mothers and motherhood can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Romans and their festivals honoring the mother goddesses, Rhea and Cybele.  Early Christians adopted and adapted these pagan celebrations, transforming them into a festival known as “Mothering Sunday.”  Held on the fourth Sunday of Lent, it was a day for the faithful to return to their “mother church” for a special service. Over time, this tradition shifted into a more secular holiday with children presenting their mothers with flowers and tokens of appreciation.

The U.S. celebration of Mother’s Day dates back to the 19thCentury.  It essentially began as a women’s movement to better the lives of other Americans and is primarily attributable to three women: Ann Reeves Jarvis, Julia Ward Howe, and Ann’s daughter, Anna M. Jarvis.

Ann Reeves Jarvis
Photo Source: Today in History

Ann Reeves Jarvis, known as “Mother Jarvis,” was a young Appalachian homemaker and a lifelong activist.  In the mid-1800s, she organized “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” in West Virginia to combat unsanitary living conditions and teach young mothers how to safely care for their children.  During the Civil War, she cared for both Union and Confederate wounded soldiers and organized women’s brigades, encouraging women to help without regard for which side their men had chosen.  After the war, she promoted peace between former Union and Confederate families.  Both she and peace activist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe urged the creation of a Mother’s Day dedicated to peace.

Julia War Howe @ 1898
Photo Source: Julia Ward Howe Papers,
Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.

Julia Ward Howe was the famous poet who authored the Civil War anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  During the Civil War, she volunteered for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, promoting hygienic environments for hospitals to ensure sanitary conditions while caring for sick and wounded soldiers.   A reformer, abolitionist, and suffragette, Howe felt that mothers should gather to prevent the cruelty of war and the waste of life since it is mothers who most bear and know the cost. In 1870, forty years before it became an official holiday, Ward Howe wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation, a call to action that asked mothers to unite in promoting world peace.  She subsequently campaigned for a “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated every June 2.  Howe’s version of Mother’s Day was celebrated in Boston and other locations for about 30 years.

Other early Mother’s Day pioneers include Juliet Calhoun Blakely, an 1870s temperance activist who inspired a local Mother’s Day in Albion, Michigan.  Mary Towles Sasseen and Frank Hering worked to organize a Mothers’ Day in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Some have even called Hering “the father of Mothers’ Day.”)  But it was Anna M. Jarvis, the daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, who turned Mother’s Day into a national holiday.

Anna M. Jarvis
Photo Source: Bettmann /Corbis.

Following her mother’s 1905 death, Anna Jarvis conceived of Mother’s Day as a way continue her mother’s crusade for peace while honoring the sacrifices mothers make for their children.  She believed a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the worldShe started campaigning for a national day to honor all mothers, bombarding public figures and various civic organizations with telegrams, letters, and in-person discussions.  She promoted her idea through speeches and booklets that she printed at her own expense. 

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 her mother had taught.  The following year, with the financial backing of Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker, she organized the first official Mother’s Day service to acknowledge all mothers on May 10 in the same church.  That same day also saw thousands of people attend a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia.  Thus was born the idea that the second Sunday in May be set aside to honor every mother, living or deceased.

Following the success of her first Mother’s Day, Jarvis resolved to see her holiday added to the national calendar. Arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, she started a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians urging the adoption of a special day honoring motherhood.

“President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed a new national holiday, Mother’s Day, on May 9, 1914.”
Photo Source: “Today in History: May 9.”

In 1908, the U.S. Congress rejected a proposal to make Mother’s Day an official holiday, joking that they would also have to proclaim a “Mother-in-law’s Day”.  However, Anna Jarvis’ efforts came to the attention of the mayor of Philadelphia, who proclaimed a local Mother’s Day.  West Virgina, Jarvis’ home state, officially recognized Mother’s Day as a local holiday in 1910.  By 1912 many states, towns and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Jarvis had established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause.

Jarvis’ persistence paid off.  In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing 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.”

Ironically, Anna Jarvis herself never married nor had children.  And as card companies, florists, candy makers, and other businesses used the holiday as an opportunity to promote the sale of their products, she came to resent the commercialization of Mother’s Day and organized boycotts against her own creation. Jarvis wanted the emphasis on sentiment, not profit, and argued that people should appreciate and honor their mothers through handwritten letters expressing their love and gratitude, instead of buying gifts and pre-made cards.  She spent the final years of her life trying to abolish the very holiday that she had helped to establish!

Today, versions of Mother’s Day are celebrated worldwide with traditions and dates varying by country.  At times, Mother’s Day has been a date for launching political or feminist causes.  Mother’s Day endures and evolves.  Just as Mother’s Day was the creation of multiple women, the modern Mother’s Day celebrates the many varied roles and goals of mothers today and commemorates the many ways mothers have fought to better the lives of their children. 


Sources Cited:

Boeckmann, Catherine and Heidi Stonehill, “How Mother’s Day Started in the United States.”

“History of Mother’s Day,”

“Mother’s Day,”

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