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Summary Article: Mother's Day
from Encyclopedia of Motherhood

Mother's Day is one of most widely celebrated American holidays, observed each year on the second Sunday in May. It is also observed around the world in over 40 countries, though sometimes on different dates. Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, hosted the first official American Mother's Day service on the morning of May 10, 1908. The Wannamaker Auditorium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, hosted a larger Mother's Day service, with 15,000 people in attendance, that same afternoon. Both events were organized by Anna Jarvis, who was inspired to establish a maternal memorial day in honor of her mother. By 1911, every state observed Mother's Day. However, it did not become a national holiday until 1914, when a Congressional resolution and Woodrow Wilson's presidential proclamation established the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day and called for the display of the American flag on all government buildings and individual homes.

Honoring Mothers in History

Americans, of course, were not the first to reserve a day of tribute for mothers; the practice dates back to antiquity. The honoring of a mother goddess, for example, was evident across cultures. The ancient Greeks honored Rhea, the mother of Zeus. And ancient Romans celebrated the mother goddess Cybele with a three-day spring festival, known as the Hilaria, on the Ides of March. The early Christians designated the fourth Sunday in Lent as Mothering Sunday. In England, parishioners first celebrated Mothering Sunday by returning to the church of their baptism to pay tribute. By the 1600s, the celebration broadened to include the practice of apprentices and servants returning home with small gifts of tribute for their mothers.

Precursors of Anna Jarvis

History credits Anna Jarvis as the official founder of Mother's Day due to her success at securing its national recognition, but others promoted the idea before her. Ann Reeves Jarvis (1832-1905) first organized mothers into Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in 1858 to combat rising infant and child mortality rates caused by unsanitary living conditions in Webster, Virginia (now West Virginia). The clubs continued to provide medical aid and service to soldiers during the Civil War. In the early years following the war, Ann Reeves Jarvis led club members in Mothers’ Friendship Days to address the animosity felt by returning Union and Confederate soldiers in the community. Legend contends that her daughter, Anna Jarvis, always remembered her mother's special plea for a day honoring the service of mothers and she promised over her mother's grave to fulfill that greatest wish.

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), a suffragist and the famed author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, promoted a Mother's Peace Day through her work with international peace organizations. In her 1870 proclamation, Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World, Howe encouraged the cooperation of women to ensure world peace and protect the lives of those they bore and nurtured as mothers. She designated the second of June as a Mother's Day. American peace organizations, primarily in the northeast, observed Mother's Peace Day until the early 20th century.

Juliet Calhoun Blakeley (1818-1920) led the first known Mother's Day service on May 13, 1877, in Albion, Michigan. According to the legend, opponents attempted to scandalize prominent leaders of the local temperance movement by luring their sons into a saloon and parading the intoxicated boys around town. The reverend of the First Methodist Episcopal Church—and father of one of the drunken boys—was unable to lead the following morning service due to the affair, and Blakeley rose to fill the empty pulpit. She called on the rest of the mothers in attendance to join her in encouraging the congregation to support the temperance crusade. The church honored Blakeley around her birthday each year, on the second Sunday in May, until her death at the age of 102. Her sons, Charles and Moses, used their careers as traveling salesman to promote the celebration of a Mother's Day to friends and business associates outside of Albion.

Thousands of “war mothers” observe Mother's Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia, in 1937.

Mary Towles Sasseen (1862-1906) was a schoolteacher in Henderson, Kentucky, who organized Mother's Day celebrations in the local schools beginning in 1887. On April 20, a date selected in honor of Sasseen's mother's birthday, schools invited mothers to enjoy a morning program of songs, recitations, and other tributes. Sasseen published an instructional guide, Mother's Day Celebration, in 1893 to encourage other schools to adopt the annual practice.

Frank Hering (1874-1943), known as the Father of Mother's Day, made the first known public plea for a Mother's Day on February 7, 1904. While on the faculty at Notre Dame University, Hering conceived of the idea from a colleague who provided penny postcards for his students to write their mothers each month. Hering advocated for the national recognition of a Mother's Day through his involvement with the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

Anna Jarvis's Mother's Day

Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) began her Mother's Day movement in her mother's memory in 1907. She selected the second Sunday in May to commemorate her mother's death and used her mother's favorite flower, the white carnation, as the day's emblem. In 1912, Jarvis incorporated the Mother's Day International Association to promote the day's national and international observance and later protect it from commercialization. Jarvis envisioned a “holy day” in honor of mothers, and not a commercial holiday. Furthermore, she considered Mother's Day her legal property based on her trademark of the words Mother's Day, the Second Sunday in May, and the white carnation emblem. She frequently threatened to sue those who violated her copyrights. Consequently, Jarvis spent the rest of her life attempting to protect Mother's Day from commercialization and her status as sole founder. The site of the first official Mother's Day service in Grafton, West Virginia, is now the International Mother's Day Shrine and Museum and is open to the public.

See Also:

Activism, Maternal, Consumerism and Mothering, Greece (and Ancient Greece), Jarvis, Anna, Mother Goddess

  • Hatch, Jane M. The American Book of Days. Bronx, NY: H. W. Wilson, 1978.
  • Krythe, Maymie R. All About American Holidays. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962.
  • Myers, Robert J. Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. New York: Doubleday, 1972.
  • Passic, Frank “Juliet Calhoun Blakeley.” Morning Star : , May 3, 1993.
  • Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Wolfe, Howard H. Behold Thy Mother: Mothers Day and the Mothers Day Church. Privately Printed, (1962).
  • Antolini, Katharine Lane
    West Virginia Wesleyan College
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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