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Historical Motherhood Series: Mother’s Day Edition

by Kristen on May 1, 2013

This post is by Kristen Levithan, Happiest Home contributor and blogger at Motherese. You can read previous historical motherhood posts by clicking here.

writing, mother's day, history of mother's day

Photo: Caitlinator, via Flickr Creative Commons

Would you be surprised to learn that Mother’s Day was created by a woman who was never a mother herself? I know I was. In fact it was a daughter, Anna Jarvis, who was so proud of her own mother’s life and work that she lobbied to create a national holiday honoring all mothers and the work done by women’s organizations.

Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, Anna Jarvis’s mother and the inspiration for Mother’s Day, was born in Virginia in 1832, the daughter of a Methodist minister and his wife. She moved to West Virginia at age 12 when her father was transferred to a parish there. At 17, she married her husband, Granville Jarvis, a merchant. Ann and Granville went on to have eleven children, only four of whom survived until adulthood. Perhaps inspired by her own losses, Ann dedicated her life to her children and to her work trying to remedy the poor health and sanitation conditions that contributed to infant and child mortality in her West Virginia county. She organized her fellow mothers into so-called “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs.” Overseen by two doctors (one of them Ann’s brother, James), these groups of women attended to the health of their community through such tasks as caring for the children of sick mothers, providing medicine for the poor, and inspecting milk that was fed to children.

Soon Jarvis’s Mothers Day Work Clubs were called upon to meet a new challenge: tending to the health of soldiers serving in the American Civil War. In 1861, Jarvis’s Taylor County was overrun with soldiers from both the Union and the Confederate sides. The county was home to a strategically important railroad junction that both sides sought to capture. In the midst of the fighting, epidemics of measles and typhoid fever broke out in the military camps. When asked for aid from her Work Clubs, Jarvis agreed, assuring war officials that her workers would provide aid to both sides, regardless of their own personal loyalties, noting, “You shall have it. .. No mistreatment of any of our members. We are composed of both the Blue and the Gray.” The skilled, compassionate work of Jarvis and her team helped save thousands of lives on both sides of the conflict.

After the war, Jarvis continued to serve her community. She and the Work Clubs organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” a post-war rally to try to heal the lingering political divisions in the community. Inviting all area veterans and their families, Jarvis led the congregation in songs and encouraged former soldiers to greet and shake hands with those from the opposing side. Jarvis was also very active in the life of Andrews Methodist Church, a new church led by her husband. There Ann helped to run the church primary school for two decades and gave lectures on parenting and historical motherhood (what a great topic!) to packed assemblies.

When Granville died in 1902, Ann moved to Philadelphia with her daughters to live with her son. She died there in 1905 at the age of 72. Two years later, on the second Sunday in May, Ann’s daughter Anna held a small ceremony to celebrate and honor her mother’s life and work. It was then that she announced her intention to create a national celebration in honor of mothers. Anna started her campaign in the community where Ann had done so much of her work. She wrote to the Superintendent of Andrews Methodist Church, asking the congregation to hold a ceremony in her mother’s honor, and, on May 10, 1908, the church held its first annual Mother’s Day celebration. Anna continued to lobby for wider recognition of the holiday and in 1910 it was recognized by the Governor of West Virginia. Not long after, the U.S. Congress agreed to designate the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, a resolution that was signed into law in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson. The holiday was soon observed across the country and in nations around the world.

Anna’s campaigning did not end once Mother’s Day was made a national holiday. Indeed, by the 1920s, she became distressed by the commercialization of the holiday. She trademarked the terms “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May” to try to limit their uses by such groups as florists and greeting card companies and bombarded violators with letters reminding them of the original intent of the holiday. According to Anna, “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”

Anna and her sister spent the rest of their lives and the remains of their family fortune trying to fight what the holiday had become. Both died in poverty. (Yikes.)

So, still wondering what to get for your mom this year for Mother’s Day? Anna Jarvis would recommend a letter written from the heart and a simple white carnation – her own hand-picked symbol of the “truth, purity, and broad charity of mother love.” But however you choose to commemorate Mother’s Day, please spare a thought for Ann Jarvis, Anna’s mother and the inspiration behind Mother’s Day, and her colleagues who dedicated their lives not only to their own children, but also to an entire generation of children in their community.

May you enjoy a happy Mother’s Day with your kids, your mother, and all the mother-figures in your life.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather Caliri May 1, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I’m so inspired by the chutzpah and servanthood of these mothers you are profiling here, Kristen. So often as a mom I wonder how I can be of use in the wider world, and looking to the past to see what other mothers have accomplished is a pretty darn good place to be inspired.

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Kristen May 3, 2013 at 10:04 am

And so many did it at times when women’s roles were so circumscribed by society and tradition. Let’s hear it for the ladies!

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Contemporary Troubadour May 2, 2013 at 10:54 am

Completely unexpected, the roots of this holiday. I love Anna’s recommendation for what to give Mom on Mother’s Day. I’ve never liked the commercialization of these occasions, which creates so much expectation to spend, spend, spend. But of course, I’m an old-fashioned letter-writer at heart who loves stationery and ink pens, even as part of the generation that came of age as e-mail was becoming ubiquitous :)

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Kristen May 3, 2013 at 10:05 am

I’m a paper and pen person too, even though I spend so much of my time on the computer. I definitely kept Anna’s thoughts in mind when coming up with Mother’s Day presents this year.

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ayala May 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

A wonderful article just in time for Mother’s Day. Thank you for sharing, Kristen. My dad passed away Mother’s Day weekend five years ago. It became such a hard time for me to celebrate, it tainted it. I have learned to control the sadness in order not to hurt my own children. The longing is there but it’s getting a little bit easier. I never knew the history that you shared here so beautifully.

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Kristen May 3, 2013 at 10:06 am

I’m so sorry that this holiday has sad associations for you, Ayala. My wish is that you get to spend your Mother’s Day surrounded by your beautiful family and the spirit of your wonderful father. xo

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rebecca @ altared spaces May 5, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Lovely! Lovely! The history you are softly bringing to my life is a true gem. I have always invited my children to write to me. I cherish their handwriting and their sentiments.

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Kristen May 6, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Thank you, my dear. So glad you are enjoying this series!

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Lady Jennie May 21, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Kristen, I didn’t have room in my tweet to mention you as having written this piece, but I just think it’s amazing. I hope people do read it, even though Mother’s Day is past in the US.

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Kristen @ Motherese May 22, 2013 at 9:57 am

Thank you so much, Jennie! And thanks for your continued support of our Historical Motherhood series.

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