By Meredith C. Carroll*
The idea of honoring mothers on a special day didn’t originate in the United States, although it was there that it first became a lucrative commercial holiday. At the same time, when tracing the roots, it’s clear the way mothers are celebrated today has come a long way from how the day’s founder intended.
The dating site AshleyMadison.com, an online meeting place that launched in 2001 to much controversy because of its aim to connect people in committed relationships with extramarital affairs, released a report in 2013 detailing how its female subscriber base rose by 439 percent on the day after Mother’s Day. The site’s then-CEO, Noel Biderman, attributed the spike to fed-up wives deciding to look outside their marriage following serial disappointment by their husbands’ failure to adequately celebrate them on special occasions.
“While Mother’s Day might not have the implicit romance factor of Valentine’s Day or an anniversary, it’s a holiday that compels women to reflect on their relationships,” Biderman said.
One hundred and five years earlier, the inaugural Mother’s Day was commemorated thanks to a relentless and spirited campaign by Anna Jarvis to make it a national holiday in the United States in honor of her own mother, Ann Jarvis. Ann Jarvis worked during the American Civil War , a conflict between the northern and southern states in the U.S. after the southern states left the Union in order to protect their right to have slaves. She tended to wounded Union and Confederate soldiers and also appealing to their hopeful-softer side by establishing a Mother’s Friendship Day with the goal of caring for soldiers on both sides and also choreographing a cease fire. A day fêteing mothers fell flat, although the idea never quite disappeared entirely.
When Jarvis was 12, her mom led a classroom prayer to coincide with a “Mothers of the Bible” lesson:
“I hope that someone, sometime will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”
The prayer stayed with Jarvis even after her mother’s death in 1905. Her brother Claude reported hearing her say at the funeral, “. . . by the grace of God, you shall have that Mother’s Day.”
She carefully studied the cards and letters of sympathy she received as she set out to institute a special day honoring all mothers. MothersDayCelebration.com said she organized a letter-writing drive aimed at people in positions of power to help advocate the need to honor mothers who stayed home and cared for their families. Eventually, with the support of moguls including ketchup magnate H.J. Heinz and advertising pioneer John Wanamaker, plus Jarvis devoting all of her time to see the occasion come to fruition, it eventually did.
It was May 10, 1908, that the first Mother’s Day was finally observed. Jarvis sent 500 white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower, to the church where she’d taught Sunday School in West Virginia so the sons and daughters there could wear them and “represent the purity of a mother’s love.” West Virginia became the first state to officially adopt Mother’s Day in 1910.
Having the other states follow suit proved to be a bit more challenging, with Jarvis finding herself on the receiving end of mockery by U.S. Senators, who characterized any such day as “puerile,” “absolutely absurd,” and “trifling.” New Hampshire Senator Jacob Gallinger“judged the very idea of Mother’s Day to be an insult, as though his memory of his late mother ‘could only be kept green by some outward demonstration on Sunday, May 10.”
Colorado Senator Henry Moore Teller agreed, insisting it was an unnecessary holiday, because “Every day with me is a mother’s day.” However, with organizations including the World’s Sunday School Association in her corner, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson approved the holiday in 1914.
It was a breakthrough, even if Mother’s Day has never been unique to the United States. Mike Bernacci, professor of marketing management, consumer behavior, marketing communications, research and corporate social responsibility at University of Detroit Mercy, said ancient Egyptians worshipped Isis, mother of Horus and wife to Osiris. The Greeks and Romans continued the tradition by deifying Cybele, whom Bernacci said is “almost the prototype of the American woman today blessed with motherly instincts and tenderness while still possessed of great strength.”
Starting in the 16th century, Mothering Sunday was observed on the fourth Sunday during Lent. But while Mother’s Day has touched cultures globally, nowhere is it celebrated with as much money as in the United States. Bernacci calculated Americans spent $15.9 billion on Moms’ special day in 2013, with millennials shelling out the most.
“They understand where their bread is buttered,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
The next highest-spending country, China, not only spends significantly less, but of note is the money specifically goes towards gifts for low-income mothers. Both are statistics that would have neither impressed nor pleased Jarvis, who experienced near-immediate buyer’s remorse after the holiday was etched in stone on the calendar. As the story goes, she was especially motivated to see to it that mothers were given due credit upon learning how deeply negligent U.S. adults were to their own parents — and she wanted the holiday performed on precise terms: her terms, that is. That’s why when dining at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia one day and seeing a “Mother’s Day Salad” on the menu, she ordered and then promptly dumped it on the floor, paid and left.
It became common for people to acknowledge Mother’s Day by wearing red carnations — to honor living mothers — and white ones for those who had passed. Beginning in the 1920s, greeting card companies and florists realized they had the potential to mine gold, or sell cards and flowers to husbands and children to shower upon their matriarchs. Jarvis filed lawsuits and applied for a trademark to protect the connection between carnations and Mother’s Day. The Florist Telegraph Delivery association tried appeasing her by offering a cut of their Mother’s Day flower sales, although it just further stoked her ire.
Also infuriating to Jarvis was the idea of pre-printed cards. MentalFloss.com quotes her bitter feelings on the topic: “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. Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”
She was arrested once for disturbing the peace at a Mother’s Day carnation sale at a meeting of the nonprofit group American War Mothers, which is an organization for women whose children have or did serve in the armed services during an active conflict. She also criticized President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, for using Mother’s Day as a vessel to raise money for charities that worked to combat high maternal and infant mortality rates, even though it was “the very type of work Jarvis’ mother did during her lifetime.”
Her indignation didn’t stop at Mother’s Day, either, with Bernacci saying she also tried to stop the founding of Father’s Day, calling it a “knock-off holiday.” Her rage towards the holiday never abated, including when the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp that included carnations in its illustration, leading Jarvis to believe it was a conspiracy to help the boost the flower industry. “Jarvis had lost control of the holiday she helped created, and she was crushed by her belief that commercialism was destroying Mother’s Day,” Bernacci said.
Jarvis was so determined to see Mother’s Day disappear that she spent the latter part of her life going door-to-door gathering signatures to rescind the holiday. She died in 1948 in an asylum, the bill for which was partly paid by “a group of grateful florists.”
Surely the florists continue feeling their gratitude today. Bernacci estimates Mother’s Day is now the second-most commercial holiday behind Christmas in the United States, having grown by 36 percent from 2010-2014.
“Save a Great Recession-type of downturn,” he said, “we would expect Mother’s Day to continue to lengthen its lead over Valentine’s Day in perpetuity.”
*Meredith C. Carroll is an Aspen, Colo.-based writer and op-ed columnist. Follow her @MCCarroll