The Inventor of Mother’s Day Spent The Last Years of Her Life Trying To Destroy It

The story of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis and corporate greed

According to Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day, the holiday was not to be observed with objects or things. The greatest present for any mother on their special day was to receive in person visits from their living children. If one was not in the position to visit their mother on Mother’s Day, their presence could be substituted for a lengthy hand written letter.

To Jarvis, Mother’s Day was about celebrating motherhood and spending time with family. It was what her mother Ann Maria had wanted. It was the ideals of Anna Jarvis’s mother of a day filled with love and respect for moms worldwide is what pushed Jarvis to launch the movement that established Mother’s Day as a legitimate holiday.

But it quickly turned into something she despised.

The first Mother’s Day

Ironically, Anna Jarvis had no children of her own. She never even married. Her respect for the institution of motherhood came from her own mom who had birthed eleven children and lost seven of them early in their lives. This pain, triumph and experience is what Anna saw first hand and forged an extremely close relationship between mother and daughter.

When Anna’s mother died on May 9th, 1905, it galvanized her to try and get her commemorative day celebrating mothers passed into law.

On May 10th, 1908, Anna Jarvis held a memorial service for her mother at their church and dubbed the day, Mother’s Day. It was the very first observance of the day organized by Jarvis in celebration of her late mother.

She would hold a similar service every year and began to campaign for the observance to be picked up nationwide.

A rush to victory

Two years after the first observance of Anna’s Mother’s Day her home state of West Virginia codified the observance into law. The move quickly made waves and other states soon followed. By 1913 the idea of a nationwide day for mothers was now on the minds of Congress in Washington.

Less than a decade after the first Mother’s Day was observed by Anna Jarvis’s congregation, the US Congress took up the motion to mark the day as an official US holiday.

The measure passed on May 8th, 1914, designating the second Sunday in May officially as Mother’s Day.

Anna was thrilled, for a time, and began to press for the holiday to be recognized worldwide as an international observance.

Carnations and commercialization

The white carnation was Anna Jarvis’s favorite symbol for motherhood. She adorned it at every observance and admired its natural beauty and pure qualities. A quote from Anna Jarvis, found in Kathrine Lane Antolini’s book Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day, regarding the carnation states:

Its whiteness is to symbolize the truth, purity and broad-charity of mother love; its fragrance, her memory, and her prayers. The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying. When I selected this flower, I was remembering my mother’s bed of white pinks.

It was a beautiful sentiment and one that she felt strongly about in regards to Mother’s Day for her entire life.

Unfortunately, that sentiment was picked up by some very public figures. In 1913, a resolution in Congress preceding the official bill that created Mother’s Day, called for all public officials, including the president, to don a white carnation in observance of the holiday.

Soon afterwards, year over year, flower sales ballooned. Everyone wanted to honor their mother with Anna’s beloved white carnation. And as the sales grew, so did the commercialization. Ads followed. White carnations ran out of stock forcing other colors of carnation to be used as a substitute. Then other flowers entirely.

By the 1920s, white carnations were expensive and floral shops were now big businesses. Seeing how her love of the carnation was driving commercialization of a day she saw as sacred Jarvis tried to give up the carnation as the symbol of Mother’s Day in favor of a symbol that could not be easily sold. But it was too late, the cat was out of the bag.

Undoing her own life’s work

The 1930s continued the trend of the 1920s. Despite the Great Depression, sentiments for Mother’s Day continued to become more about buying flowers, candies and small printed cards than it was about visiting your parents or writing heartfelt letters.

Anna Jarvis lamented saying:

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.

Clearly, she was becoming distraught over the direction her holiday was taking.

She was so distraught, in fact, that by 1940 she was beginning to petition for the holiday to be removed. It was not what she had wanted, it was not what her mother had wanted, and she still saw herself as the spiritual leader of the Mother’s Day movement.

But Mother’s Day had become big business so it was not going anywhere.

While other people continued to get rich off of Anna Jarvis’s holiday, she was growing destitute. By 1940 Anna was 75. She had never married and had no kids of her own to take care of her in her aging years.

Ironically, people were making more money than ever on flowers and gifts for a day she created while she received not a penny.

In 1943, she began an official petition to strike the holiday from the calendar but the movement was quickly shut down. Citing her ailing health, her poor finances and lack of close relatives to care for her Jarvis was put into a sanitarium to live out the rest of her days.

While in the sanitarium, all of her bills were paid and the institution was rewarded handsomely for keeping her there. And for keeping her quiet.

Who was the mysterious benefactor paying to keep Jarvis inside? Businessmen connected to the floral and card industries.

Anna Jarvis died a few years later in 1948, her expenses paid for by happy florists. Mother’s Day is here to stay and instead of visiting their moms and making things by hand, most people simply buy flowers and cards at the local drug store.

Professional freelance writer with an eye for history and storytelling. Mining stories from history is my passion. Sharing is caring.

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