Mother's Day in America: Historical or Hallmark Holiday?

What are you getting mom for Mother's Day?

mothers-dayDo you know the story of Mother’s Day? If your historical knowledge of the day assumes that it is a day for children to celebrate their mothers, then you are under-informed at best. Mother’s Day actually became a national holiday in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill setting aside the second Sunday of May as a special day to celebrate mothers.

How Mother’s Day Began

The roots of Mother’s Day are much deeper than Woodrow Wilson’s holiday. The concept of Mother’s Day developed from the idea that mothers should band together during times of deep sadness to prevent their burden from falling on others.

Julia Ward Howe, in 1870, penned the Mother’s Day Proclamation. This document is credited with being the first official call for an observance of a ‘Mother’s Day.’ The intent, however, was far from the traditional celebration observed. Instead of celebrating mothers by taking them out to lunch and or letting them enjoy a relaxing meal and afternoon gift giving, the proclamation was a call to action.

Julia Howe, being deeply affected by the pains and horrors of the Civil War, called upon mothers everywhere to rally for peace. She is quoted as saying, “We women of one country will be to tender those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.””

How many ever have thought that this day of flowers, chocolates and meals out had, at its core, the broken heart of a mother protesting war to spare other women the same agony? If you are asking yourself what happened, you are not alone. Thanks to the wheels of commercialism, this early tradition has all but buried Julia Howe’s original design and intent.

Anna Jarvis Fights For Mother’s Day

No early sponsors of Mother’s Day stood by and let this change take place without a fight. After Howe’s efforts, Mother’s Days slowly gained steam as the torch was taken up by Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter Anna Jarvis. Anna Jarvis saw the fledgling holiday begin to take wing when it drew the attention of the florist industry. Florists knew this was a major opportunity.

Florists were not wrong. Mother’s Day today is a $23.6 billion dollar industry, and flowers are no small part of the spending. May sees the highest sales numbers of the whole year, even beating out June with its plethora of weddings.

Florists See The Opportunity

As florists began to advertise flowers for Mother’s Day, and hold Mother’s Day events, Anna Jarvis began to decry the shift into commercialization. She protested saying, “[Mother’s Day] is to be a day of sentiment, not profit.””

Since standing idly by was not her way, Jarvis sued the sponsors of a Mother’s Day events in an effort to prevent it from taking place. In 1930, she was arrested for disturbing the peace by trying to prevent the sale of flowers at a Mother’s Day event. In 1938 Jarvis attempted to get a copyright Mother’s Day, which would have enabling her to control use of both the term and the holiday itself.

Jarvis failed, died blind and alone and, ironically, childless in 1948. Yet in spite of her destitute condition, she was cared for in her blindness by an anonymous benefactor. That benefactor? The Florist’s Exchange. Anna Jarvis had been instrumental in getting Mother’s Day set apart by the US Government as a national holiday. Whatever else she did later was a minor imposition when compared to the jump in flower profits.

So what are you getting for your mother this year? She may not appreciate a history lesson, but flowers would be nice.

To learn more about the history of Mother’s Day and popular gift categories, click the graphic to the left.

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