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The Battle For The Soul Of Mother's Day

Following up on a post I did two years ago (see here), I wanted to detail how the founder of Mother's Day, Anna Jarvis success soon turned to failure, at least in her own eyes.

By 1912, most states recognized Mother’s Day in some way. Anna had staged a massive letter writing campaign. She wrote to every state governor, to charities, to the editor of Ladies Home Journal, even to Teddy Roosevelt. It was a huge undertaking and it was a successful one.

Then in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation to make Mother’s Day a national day of observance. It was technically a flag resolution, meaning that all it asked everybody to do was hang a flag outside their house or on public buildings in honor of mothers. But to Anna, it was always her holiday. She copyrighted it. When anybody claimed that Woodrow Wilson was the founder of Mother's Day. She would respond by saying, "All he did was sign it. I did all the work."

So then Anna began fighting to protect her day. She threatened lawsuits. She had battles with industries that were trying to commercialize her idea– the floral industry, the greeting card industry, the candy industry. The floral industry would hike the price of carnations up every Mother’s Day, which she hated so much. 

During World War I, Mother's Day quickly became part of the war propaganda effort. The military used it to reach out to mothers: "You’re a good mother if you raise your son to be willing to fight." Then to their sons: "Go fight to make the world safe for democracy, to keep your mother safe." General John "Black Jack" Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, highlighted the value of the holiday in a general order he issued on 8 May 1918, asking officers and soldiers to write letters home on Mother's Day. He wrote, "This is a little thing for each one to do, but these letters will carry back our courage and affection to the patriotic women whose love and prayers inspire us and cheer us on to victory." The military would actually provide cards to get the soldiers to do it.

One of Anna's big fights was with a group called American War Mothers, which was founded to support the war effort, but then pivoted to helping veterans as well as widows and mothers who were left with nobody to care for them. During the 1920s, they started using Mother’s Day as a fundraising device, selling carnations. Anna’s response was, "You don't have permission to use my day. You don't have permission to use my carnations. How dare you?" So, in 1925 she crashed their annual meeting in Philadelphia and was actually arrested for disturbing the peace.

Her problem with charities was that she did not believe that the money they were raising was going to the people who needed it. There was no transparency. She used to refer to charities as "Christian pirates." But what also really bothered her was how these charities seemed to violate the idea of Mother's Day as she had envisioned it. To her, it was supposed to day of gratitude and respect; not a day to feel sorry for mothers, not a day to try to rescue them. Anna's feeling was that you can pity mothers any other day. Mother's Day, however, was the day to just celebrate them.

In 1933, during the Depression, the United States Senate amended the original Mother's Day resolution, asking that people donate to charities. So, instead of just honoring one's own mother and hanging a flag, it was decided to use it to help mothers and families in the midst of this economic crisis where there was no male breadwinner or the father was dead. That opened the floodgates. Every charity that could tie Mother's Day to their organization tried to do so. Anna was outraged. 

Some of the charities had a lot of very big-name supporters, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, the first woman cabinet secretary, and a major architect of the New Deal. Eleanor Roosevelt did not understand why Anna was so mad at her: "We're promoting your day!"

Nonetheless, Anna accused the First Lady of "grand larceny of human reputation and achievement" for using her day in a manner Anna never intended. She often complained about Eleanor's support of the charitable campaigns in telegrams to President Roosevelt. She even wrote Frances Perkins demanding that she resign; Anna accused her of using federal funds to support the ability to steal the holiday.

In 1934 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt got into the act; the avid stamp collector sketched a design for a Commemorative Mother’s Day Stamp based on the famous "Whistler’s Mother" portrait. Anna did not approve. She found the design ugly and made clear her intention that the words "Mother's Day" should not adorn the stamp, and they never did.

Commemorative Mother's Day stamp

Business owners like John Wanamaker and Philadelphia's florists likely saw Mother's Days commercial potential from that very first Sunday in 1908.  Anna had a sincere hatred of Mother's Day being used for profiteering. Just a few years after that first Philadelphia Mother's Day, one story goes, Anna ordered a "Mother's Day Salad" at Wanamaker’s Tea Room. When it arrived at her table, she promptly dumped it on the floor.

Anna had always meant for the day to be one of quiet reflection and personal relations between mothers and children. "To have Mother's Day the burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift day that Christmas and other special days have become, is not our pleasure," she wrote in the 1920s. "If the American people are not willing to protect Mother's Day from the hordes of money schemers that would overwhelm it with their schemes, then we shall cease having a Mother's Day—and we know how." Some of it definitely was her ego. She wanted the message to be, unconditionally and unequivocally, "You’re a good mother."

In the end, Anna was unable to stop Mother's Day from becoming something she did not want. In debt, angry and in failing health, she lived for a time in a giant brick mansion in Philadelphia with her blind sister, Lillian. Outside the mansion was a sign alerting visitors "Warning — Stay Away." Eventually her health declined to the point where she herself went blind and she needed outside care, at which point she was put into the Marshall Square Sanitarium in Pennsylvania. Since she did not have any money to pay for the care she was receiving there, ironically, the bill was reportedly largely paid for by a group of businessmen in the floral industry that had benefited greatly from her idea. Naturally, so as to avoid upsetting the elderly Anna, it appears that she was never told of their part in paying for her care.

Today, Mother's Day is not just commercialized, it is a retail juggernaut. If there is money to be made on a certain holiday, businesses will advertise the holiday, making sure that it is as popular as it can be and that it sticks around. According to the National Retail Federation, only Back-to-School and winter holidays inspire Americans to spend more money per person than for Mother's Day. The total amount spent is estimated to be over 30 billion dollars.

To Anna, it was never about money. She never say a penny profit from the day she started. For her, as she put it: "When a son or daughter cannot endure the name 'mother' for a single day of the year it would seem there is something wrong. One day out of all the ages, and one day out of all the year to bear the name 'mother' is surely not too much for her."


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