The Story Behind the Creation of Mother's Day

It may seem as if Mother's Day was invented by FTD and Hallmark, but people have been taking time on the calendar to give a shout-out to Mom for a long time. The Greeks and Romans had mother goddess festivals—although their celebrations didn't involve the menfolk taking their underappreciated mothers out to dinner. A more recent tradition was Mothering Sunday, which developed in the British Isles during the 16th century. On the fourth Sunday during Lent young men and women who were living and working apart from their families were allowed to return to their "mother churches," which usually meant seeing Mom again, too.

Mother's Day as it is observed in the United States started in the 1850s with Ann Jarvis, a West Virginia woman who held "Mothers' Work Days" to promote health and hygiene at home and in the workplace. During the Civil War, Jarvis organized women to improve sanitary conditions for soldiers on both sides, and after the war she became a pacifist, furthering the cause by bringing together mothers of Union and Confederate soldiers and promoting a Mother's Day holiday that had explicit pacifist overtones.

Jarvis's work inspired another 19th-century feminist-pacifist, Julia Ward Howe (who is better remembered for having written the lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"—which, with its "terrible swift sword," seems an odd claim to fame for a pacifist). In 1870 Howe published her "Mother's Day Proclamation," which envisioned the day not as a sentimental appreciation of mothers by their children but as an opportunity for women to exercise their collective power for peace: "Arise, then, women of this day! … Say firmly: … Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience." Howe started holding annual Mother's Day celebrations in Boston, her hometown, but after about a decade she stopped footing the bill and the tradition petered out.

It was Jarvis's daughter Anna who succeeded in getting Mother's Day recognized as a national holiday. After her mother died, in May 1905, Anna started holding yearly commemorations on the anniversary and conducting a tireless PR campaign to have the day made a holiday. In 1908 she succeeded in enlisting the support of John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department store magnate and advertising pioneer, and by 1912 West Virginia and a few other states had adopted Mother's Day. Two years later President Woodrow Wilson signed a resolution declaring the second Sunday in May a national holiday.

It wasn't long, though, before whatever ideals the day was supposed to celebrate were buried under an avalanche of greeting cards and candy. By the 1920s Anna Jarvis was campaigning against the holiday she had been instrumental in creating. "I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit," she said. Sorry, Anna, but on Sunday, amid the sentiment, the cash register will ring.