The West Virginian Who Created Mother’s Day And Regretted It
Anna Jarvis grew up in Grafton, West Virginia in the late 1800s. She was one of 11 children but one of just four of the children who lived to adulthood. As the oldest daughter, she shared a close bond with her mother. Anna often wrote her mother letters and took care of her as she developed heart conditions. She died in 1905.
Her mother’s death led Jarvis to devote her life to the holiday now recognized as International Mother’s Day.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Duncan Slade spoke with Katharine Antolini, a history and gender studies professor at West Virginia Wesleyan University and the author of Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother's Day.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Slade: What impact does her death have on Anna Jarvis? How does it go from the death of just her mother to this holiday? How does that happen?
Katharine Antolini: When going through her writing and what she would claim is that it all begins in the 1870s. Anna is 12 years old. They're in church at the Andrew Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton. And her mother, Mrs. Jarvis, is a Sunday school teacher. And so she was listening to her mother give a Sunday school lesson on mothers of the Bible. You know, it was her mother's favorite Sunday school lesson. So at the end of that Sunday school lesson, her mother gives this prayer that she hopes and prays that someday somebody will create a memorial on Mother's Day to honor women. So Anna swears she remembers that.
Slade: What is the first Mother's Day and how does it progress?
Antolini: Mrs. Jarvis dies in 1905. So 1906 to 1907, all that Anna organizes are small little memorials in Grafton at what is now the International Mother's Day Shrine. And then, she decides she wants not just little memorial services to her mother, she wants this Mother's Day. So she starts this huge letter-writing campaign in 1907. And she's writing to anybody she thinks that can help her. She's writing to politicians, she's writing to merchants, she's writing to church organizations. And she lucks out because she finds a supporter, and John Wanamaker in Philadelphia, a huge merchant.
On May 10, 1908, is the first official Mother's Day when the first ceremony is held in Grafton. So that's why West Virginia we claim to be the ‘mother state of Mother's Day,’ because we hosted it in Grafton in the morning. So by 1909, it's spreading to other states. By 1912, Mother's Day is being celebrated in every state in some capacity. So by the time we get to 1914, and Woodrow Wilson makes it a national holiday, it’s already being celebrated by every state. So, Congress and Woodrow Wilson are kind of making official a holiday that is already being celebrated on the state level for a couple of years by then.
Slade: From the first Mother's Day to a national holiday in like, what seven years? It seems like such a feat with basically just these letters that are going out and one woman’s energy. What is her pitch in those letters?
Antolini: Well, it depends on who she's writing to. She would tailor her argument to the audience that she's writing to. For example, one of my favorite letters, she's writing to Theodore Roosevelt. And Theodore Roosevelt, if you remember, his big thing, especially in the early 20th century, was every man needs to fight for his country. And for a woman to serve her country, she needs to have children. So, Teddy Roosevelt equated motherhood to patriotism. So obviously, then when Anna's writing to him, saying you need to support this holiday, because we need to honor these women who are patriots, these women who are having children right for America, and are serving their country just like men who go to war, but women are serving their country by being mothers.
Slade: I was thinking about how nowadays Mother's Day is this big thing where there's candy, you go to brunch afterwards, there's flowers involved. There's all this other stuff. When does that commercialization start? And then how does she deal with that?
Antolini: Alright, so by 1912, she's already mad at the floral industry. So it starts pretty quickly, because once the holiday starts to spread — by 1912 it's been recognized throughout the United States — of course, the floral industry is gonna jump on that. And so by then she's mad. She's mad because they're actually kind of claiming that was their day. The floral industry would have advertisements saying “this is our day.” By 1922, she's leading boycotts for the floral industry. In 1923, there was a confectioner's convention in Philadelphia and she crashes that convention to yell at them. In 1925, she's arrested for disorderly conduct for crashing another convention of charities who are trying to use the day, so yeah. She's pretty passionate about her day.
Slade: Over a century since it started, what is her legacy? Is it the person that started this holiday? Is it the person who opposed this commercialization that got out of control? Where is her mark on the world now?
Antolini: Well, the fact that we still celebrate the holiday, and there aren't that many holidays that celebrate just women. I mean, I think if you Google it, there's seven honest holidays. I mean, there's like 14, if you count like National “Don't wear a Bra” Day and silly, stupid things like that. But there's only like seven holidays that celebrate women. Mother's Day is the most popular holiday that celebrates women. So she would be happy that the holiday is still the most popular, you know, holiday that celebrates women, but she would be upset that nobody knows who she is. Because her ego is so wrapped up into it because she dedicates the rest of her 40 years -- 40 years of her life is dedicated to this movement. And even long after the holiday was established in 1914. She's defending it for the rest of her life.
She never backs down from anybody, right? I'm not talking just the floral industry and the greeting card industry. She went toe to toe with the Roosevelts and New York City businessmen and people who had more power than her and more influence than her. She didn't care. They were whoever she was fighting against. Whether it's the president or the florist down the street. They were using her day in a way that she didn't agree with and she was gonna tell you all about it.
On May 11, 2008, Lucy Kaplansky and the Mountain Stage band commemorated the holiday with a tribute to all mothers in the same church where the holiday began 100 years ago.