Now that the flowers are in water, the brunches eaten, and the cards placed somewhere conspicuous, it might be fun to take a look at the history of the annual sentimental celebration called Mother’s Day. As far as I’m concerned, mothers are those women in our lives who nurture us, believe in us, and love us unconditionally. As Oprah Winfrey said “Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother.”
Americans idealize motherhood.“It is by the cradle of their children,” Judith Sargent Murray wrote in 1798, “that mothers find their happiness. Where are the powerful emotions of nature? Where is the sentiment, at once sublime and pathetic, that carries every feeling to excess? [It is] in the warm and affectionate bosom of a mother.”
Women have come a long way since 1798, but the concept of Motherhood hasn’t. The above 1914 photo of Gerald Ford and his mother is what we want to see – a child nurtured by a young mother. The imagery carries over into this 1987 mother and daughter photo.
Mother’s Day began as one daughter’s somewhat obsessive tribute to her mother. Ann Reeves Jarvis, the “original mother,” married in 1850. She was 18 years old. Over the next six years, Jarvis gave birth to six children. Four died of then common childhood diseases: diphtheria, scarlet fever, and whooping cough. Jarvis believed there was a connection between disease and basic sanitation, and took action to remedy those conditions by organizing Mother’s Work Clubs. Motto:
“Mother’s Work –
For Better Mothers, Better Homes,
Better Children, Better Men and Women.”
When Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter Anna received such an outpouring of sympathy, she decided to honor her mother by establishing a day of gratitude dedicated to the sacrifices mothers routinely and invisibly make to their family and country. Anna was very specific that the apostrophe in Mother’s Day be after the letter “r” to connote individual mothers, not mothers everywhere.
By 1909 Anna’s efforts paid off with Mother’s Day church services held in all 46 states. On May 8, 1914 Congress passed a Joint Resolution requesting President Woodrow Wilson to issue a proclamation that Americans fly the flag on the second Sunday in May “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” The president complied on May 9.
You might think Anna Jarvis was thrilled with the new national observance. But, no. Anna wanted Americans to take a day to personally honor their mothers. Retailers, always ready to help, suggested candy, flowers, and cards to which Anna responded: “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” [OUCH!]
In 1934 Mrs. H. H. McCluer requested the Postmaster to issue a commemorative stamp honoring mothers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the request and a three-cent stamp featuring “Whistler’s Mother” went into circulation. This meant that Mother’s Day cards could be sent with an appropriate stamp. Although I’m not persuaded all American mothers identified with James Whistler’s 1871 portrait of his apparently long-suffering mother.
In 1960 the post office issued a four-cent stamp titled “The American Woman.” Images denoting civil affairs, education, the arts, and industry surround a central design of a mother and daughter with an open book in front of them, “symbolizing women in the home.” Something of an improvement — at least the mother has an engaged expression.
Yesterday was the 100th official celebration of Mother’s Day. It’s highly likely Anna Jarvis spent the day spinning in her grave. The National Retail Federation projected total spending on Mother’s Day items at $19.9 million. Mother’s Day is the most popular holiday for dining out, the third most popular holiday for sending cards, the second most popular day for giving gifts, and the second busiest day for florists.
I disagree with Anna Jarvis. I think the apostrophe in Mother’s Day should be after the letter “s” to include all the women who love and nurture children. And whether Mothers’ Day is commemorated with a card, a flower, candy or a meal is not the point. Mothers’ Day is a chance to say “thank you.” I hope your day included thanks given and received. And that your gratitude isn’t confined to one day of the year.
Photos of flowers by Author.
“How Mother’s Day Founder Went Completely Insane Defending It.” NY Post. May 10, 2014.
Brian Handwerk. “Mother’s Day Turns 100: Its Surprisingly Dark History. National Geographic. May 8, 2014.
Judith Sergent Murray. Observations of Female Abilities. 1798
Marie Tyler-McGraw. “Mother’s Day Revisited.” Goldenseal. October-November 1977, vol. 3, no. 4.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.