The Founder of Mother's Day Regretted Inventing It

Have you ever started a trend only to watch other people turn it into something you hate? (It was fifth grade for us. Jenny could never draw bubble letters like we could, but she insisted on doing it anyway.) Anna Jarvis knew the feeling. She successfully established a national holiday only to fight against those who celebrated in a way she didn't like. Happy Mother's Day, indeed.

Anna Marie Jarvis was the founder of the Mother's Day holiday in the United States.

She Meant Well

Ann Reeves Jarvis once closed her Sunday school lesson with a prayer that someone would one day found a memorial day to commemorate mothers for "the matchless service she renders to humanity." Her daughter Anna Jarvis, then 12 years old, remembered that prayer for the rest of her life.

In 1907, two years after her mother's death, Anna Jarvis began to lobby for a national holiday in her honor. She wrote thousands of letters to people of influence, including Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and Mark Twain. In early 1908, the Senate rejected her Mother's Day resolution. But she wouldn't be deterred: On May 10, 1908, Jarvis spoke at the first official Mother's Day services — one at her childhood church in Grafton, West Virginia; another at a sold-out venue in Philadelphia.

Her idea caught on like wildfire, at least unofficially. And over the next few years, the majority of states in the U.S. held Mother's Day celebrations. That wasn't by accident, either — Jarvis petitioned state governors for official Mother's Day proclamations every single year. She asked people to observe the day by visiting (or at least writing to) their mothers and wearing a white carnation. "Live this day as your mother would have you live it," she said. Finally, the tide had turned: The U.S. government officially designated Mother's Day as a national holiday in 1914.

The Tale Turns Sour

That's when things got complicated. Jarvis soon became territorial over her holiday, copyrighting her own photograph, trademarking the Mother's Day Seal, and incorporating herself as the Mother's Day International Association. She became so consumed with her life's achievement that she quit her job. She needed the extra time; she spent the rest of her life fighting tooth and nail against anyone who would corrupt her vision. This included the floral and greeting-card industries (at one point, she scrapped the white carnation as the holiday's official emblem to "do away with profiteering tradesmen"), but also charities such as the Golden Rule Foundation, a fund for needy mothers and children that she accused of commercializing Mother's Day to line its pockets. Jarvis even rallied against the U.S. Postal Service when it issued a commemorative Mother's Day stamp. It's reported that at her peak, she had 33 Mother's Day–related lawsuits pending.

She lived as a recluse for the last decade of her life and was eventually committed to a sanitarium where she died alone and penniless — and perhaps saddest of all, having never become a mother herself. There are a lot of morals to this sad story, but we think this is the most important: Call your mother.

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For more holiday histories, check out "America's Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories" by Bruce David Forbes. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 11, 2018

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