The History of Mother’s Day: How an Antiwar Protest Became a Commercial Holiday

May 11, 2018, 10:00 AM UTC


Mother’s Day honors “the best mother who ever lived — your mother,” according to Anna Jarvis, who is widely credited with making the holiday an institution in the U.S. and across the globe.

The idea dates back to the 1850s when women in West Virginia organized into Mother’s Day work clubs that worked to reduce infant mortality and improve sanitary conditions for mothers and families. During the Civil War, these groups also cared for wounded soldiers from both sides.

After the war ended in 1865, women planned Mother’s Friendship Day picnics in an effort to bring Union and Confederate loyalists together, urging them to promote peace. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” writer Julia Ward Howe started a “Mother’s Peace Day” around this time, which encouraged mothers to support antiwar efforts on behalf of their sons’ wellbeing.

Many of the Mother’s Day work club events were organized by Ann Jarvis, Anna’s mother, who lost nine of her 13 children before they reached adulthood. After her death, Anna, held the first Mother’s Day observances in 1908 to honor her. Cities across the country adopted the trend, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson named the second Sunday in May a national holiday.

Mother’s Day Gifts

While it began as a political antiwar effort and a celebration of moms, Mother’s Day quickly became a “Hallmark Holiday” — the company released its first Mother’s Day cards in the 1920s.

According to a New York Times article from 1923, Anna Jarvis resented that the day she had intended to devote to mothers became “a means of profiteering.” Though she initially worked with the floral industry to help raise the holiday’s profile, she denounced its commercialization, urging people not to buy flowers, cards, and candies.

She went so far as to protest a confectioner’s convention in 1925 and was arrested for disturbing the peace.

Jarvis fought for full credit for founding Mother’s Day, a battle that consumed much of her time and money and eventually left her poor, blind, and living in a sanitarium at the end of her life. She died in 1948 at 84 years old.

“This woman, who died penniless in a sanitarium in a state of dementia, was a woman who could have profited from Mother’s Day if she wanted to,” according to historian Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College.

“But she railed against those who did, and it cost her everything, financially and physically.”

Today, about 133 million Mother’s Day cards are exchanged each year (more than any holiday besides Christmas and Valentine’s Day) and the day generates more than $20 billion in consumer spending in the U.S. alone, according to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation.

Spread of Mother’s Day

The celebration of mothers can be found in ancient Greek and Roman cultures in which mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele were honored with festivals.

In England and other parts of Europe, the tradition of “Mothering Sunday” became popular during the 16th century. On the fourth Sunday of Lent people went back to their “mother” church and gave presents, normally flowers, to their mothers. For many low income people, many of whom worked as servants, it was often the only time entire families could gather together.

By the 1920s, this custom fell out of practice, and the celebrations associated with it were eventually absorbed into the modern Mother’s Day.

In Panama the celebration also falls on a church holiday, Dec. 8, when the Catholic Church honors the Virgin Mary. Much of the Arab world recognizes Mother’s Day on March 21, and in Thailand the day falls on Aug. 12, the birthday of Queen Sirikit, who many consider a mother to all Thai people.

In the U.S. and around the world, many are beginning to make Mother’s Day more inclusive in order to honor various family structures, LGBTQ parents, and the adopted “moms” who often go unacknowledged.

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