Anna Jarvis: the Story of the Forgotten Founder of Mother’s Day in the US

One woman’s quest to celebrate her mother lead us to have a the internationally celebrated Mother's Day.

Isabel Cara

Anna Jarvis: the founder of Mother’s Day in the United States

If you’re like me, you regularly wonder why we celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May, instead of a fixed date (like other countries do). This time I actually did the research and decided to share it with you; I found it fascinating. One woman’s quest to celebrate her mother lead us to have a holiday that is now celebrated internationally. Anna Jarvis deserves to have her story more known to the public, because even she thought that the holiday has become too commercial.

Who is Anna Jarvis?

Anna Jarvis was born on May 1, 1864, and started her quest to make Mother’s Day a recognized holiday in the United States in 1905, the same year her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died. Her mother, Ann Jarvis, had been a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. Along Julia Ward Howe, another peace activist and suffragette, they created “Mother’s Day For Peace” where mothers would ask that their husbands and sons were no longer killed in wars.

This is why Anna Jarvis wanted to honor her mother, and set aside a day to honor all mother because she believed a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world”.

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The First Celebration of Mother’s Day

The first celebration of this holiday was in 1907, when Anna Jarvis held the first Mother’s Day service of worship at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Andrew’s Methodist Church now holds the International Mother’s Day Shrine and is a National Historic Landmark.

The first “official” service of worship was on May 10, 1908, in the same church, accompanied by a larger ceremony in the Wanamaker Auditorium in the Wanamaker’s store in Philadelphia. The next year the day was reported to be widely celebrated in New York.

Mother’s Day as a national Holiday

The U.S. Congress rejected a proposal to make Mother’s Day an official holiday in 1908, joking that they would also have to proclaim a “Mother-in-law’s Day”. In 1910, the holiday was declared officially by the state of West Virginia, and the rest of the states followed. By 1911 all U.S. states observed the holiday, with some of them officially recognizing Mother’s Day as a local holiday. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating Mother’s Day, held on the second Sunday in May, as a national holiday to honor mothers.

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The commercialization of Mother’s Day

Although Jarvis, who started Mother’s Day as a liturgical service, was successful in founding the celebration, she became resentful of the commercialization of the holiday.

By the early 1920s, Hallmark Cards and other companies had started selling Mother’s Day cards. Jarvis believed that the companies had misinterpreted and exploited the idea of Mother’s Day and that the emphasis of the holiday was on sentiment, not profit. As a result, she organized boycotts of Mother’s Day and threatened to issue lawsuits against the companies involved.

However, her efforts to hold on to the original meaning of the day led to her own economic hardship. While others profited from the day, Jarvis did not, and she spent the later years of her life with her sister Lillie. In 1943, she began organizing a petition to rescind Mother’s Day. However, these efforts were halted when she was placed in the Marshall Square Sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania. People connected with the floral and greeting card industries paid the bills to keep her in the sanitarium where she passed on November 24, 1948.

Mother’s Day in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom celebrates Mother’s Day on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, which this year landed on March 27, 2022. In the United Kingdom, the holiday has its roots in the religious Mothering Sunday celebration and was originally unrelated to the international Mother’s Day holiday. Most historians believe that Mothering Sunday evolved from a medieval practice of visiting one’s mother church annually on Laetare Sunday.

Mother’s Day in Mexico

Today the “Día de las Madres” is an unofficial holiday in Mexico held each year on 10 May, the day on which it was first celebrated in Mexico: May 10, 1922.

In Mexico, to show affection and appreciation to the mother, it is traditional to start the celebration with the famous song “Las Mañanitas”, either a cappella, with the help of a mariachi or a contracted trio. Families usually gather to celebrate, trying to spend as much time as possible with mothers to honor them. They bring some dishes and eat together or visit a restaurant.

Guatemala and El Salvador also celebrate Mother’s Day on May 10.

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