On Sunday, many Americans will honor their mothers on Mother’s Day.
While there have been celebrations of mothers and motherhood since antiquity, the American version has its roots in the 19th century.
Ann Reeves Jarvis, a West Virginia native with 11 children, is credited with starting Mother’s Day Work Groups in the 1850s. The groups’ goal was to help sick mothers and their children. During and after the Civil War, the groups provided medical care to wounded soldiers. Once the war was over, Jarvis organized Mother’s Friendship Day picnics.
Jarvis died in 1905, but her daughter Anna Marie took the baton and organized events honoring mothers. The early events, held at Ann’s church in West Virginia, were marked by carnations, Ann’s favorite flower. Carnations, thanks in part to the support of the floral industry, became a symbol of early Mother’s Day.
Soon, and with the backing of wealthy patrons like John Wanamaker and H.J. Heinz, the events were being held all over the country. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day would be held on the second Sunday in May.
Over time, Mother’s Day, much like Christmas, morphed into a highly commercialized affair including gifts, flowers, greetings cards and, of course, brunch.
Anna, perhaps seeing that the holiday would be over-commercialized, said she wanted it “to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” In the 1920s, she urged people to stop buying flowers and gifts, referring to those making a profit off the day as “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”
Despite this, commercialization continued. In 1934, the U.S. Postal Service even went so far as to issue a stamp based on the famous painting known colloquially as Whistler’s Mother by James Whistler. The Postal Service added a vase of carnations to the stamp. Jarvis reportedly was very angry about the stamp, and repeated that the day should be marked by a visit home or a letter to one’s mother.
She also went after the greeting card industry, saying: “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.”
She also said, “Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”
At great cost to her physical and mental health, she continued to try to de-commercialize Mother’s Day until her death in 1948.
In 2017, Americans spent an estimated $23.6 billion on Mother’s Day, according to the National Retail Federation.