Mother’s Day hasn’t always been such a yearly spectacular of sales, extravagant gifts and ready-made cards. In fact, the woman who originally promoted the day became so frustrated by the commercial hijacking of her sentimental commemoration that she once ordered a “Mother’s Day Salad” at a restaurant and when it arrived dumped it on the floor, left the money to pay for it, and stormed out in a huff. So disgusted had she become by what she saw as the commercialization of Mother's Day, that she spent her latter years fighting to have the day removed from the American calendar altogether.
Postcard issued by the Northern Pacific Railway for Mother's Day in 1915.
Anna Jarvis was born on May 1, 1864 in Webster WV, one of 13 children born to Ann Marie and Granville E. Jarvis. Growing up Anna was inordinately fond of her mother and watched Ann Jarvis devote her life to advancing the causes of women – helping to start “Mother’s Day Work Clubs”, to teach local women the proper way to care for their children, and after the Civil War in 1868 organizing what was known as “Mother’s Friendship Day” a day for mothers to bring together union and confederate soldiers in an effort to promote unity and reconciliation. Ann was also very active in their church and the story goes that after one particular Sunday school lesson in 1876, when Anna was 12 years old, her mother closed with a prayer hoping that “someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”
After her beloved mother’s death in 1905, Anna was grief stricken and poured her energies into honoring that wish. She claimed to have gone straight home from the grave and embarked on an aggressive letter writing campaign to anyone that she thought might be able to advance her cause, most notably President Teddy Roosevelt, 1908 presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan, Mark Twain, H.J. Heinz, and the Philadelphia merchant and philanthropist John Wanamaker. Anna eventually gave up her job as the first female literary and advertising editor at a life insurance company to write full time to politicians, members of the clergy, prominent business leaders, and even women’s book clubs. Arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, her passionate championship of the merits of motherhood and zealous determination to the cause paid off when John Wanamaker eventually backed the campaign and others quickly fell in line.
With the financial backing from Wanamaker, Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration in 1908 at The Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton West Virginia, where she had lived as a child. The same day, Wanamaker threw a Mother's Day event at his department store in Philadelphia and Anna spoke before a crowd of 5000, with another 10,000 trying to gain entry into the packed auditorium. Though she couldn’t attend because of her speaking engagement, Anna sent 500 white carnations, her mother's favorite flower, to the service in Grafton. She asked that attendees pin them on as a symbol of the purity of a mother’s love.
From there Jarvis’s campaign began to quickly take hold. By the time President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May a federally recognized Mother’s Day holiday in 1914, most states were already holding celebrations on that day each year. Though Jarvis had initially worked with the floral industry to promote her cause, things quickly soured. Anna fought hard against anyone looking to profit from what she saw as a purely sentimental day, to honor and visit mothers and attend church services. Where she was once consumed by the promotion of the day, she became increasingly irritated and frustrated by how it was being observed and at one point had 33 active lawsuits pending against what she saw as greedy entities looking to commandeer her holiday. She even threatened to sue The Golden Rule Foundation, a charity for needy women and children chaired by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, for contributing to the commercialization of the day.
Jarvis spent the rest of her life actively engaged in boycotts and campaigns against what she saw as wanton corruption and profiteering and urging people to refrain from meaningless sentiments like expensive mother’s day flowers, greeting cards and candies. Over the next several decades she spent most of her personal wealth trying to undo what she had fought so hard for and eventually died in a sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania, penniless and almost blind, at the age of 84.
1920s Hallmark Mother's Day card