Mother’s Day was started 100 years ago by a woman who grew to despise it

05/08/2014 12:00 AM

05/05/2014 3:39 PM

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could get riled up by a Hallmark card showing a serene mom clutching roses, but that’s only if you don’t know the story of Anna Jarvis.

She’s the person most credited with turning the second Sunday of May into Mother’s Day, which this year celebrates a milestone: 100 years.

But another person who helped launch the national holiday, with the stroke of a pen on a proclamation, was the U.S. president in 1914, Woodrow Wilson.

Take all of that — Mother’s Day, vintage Hallmark cards and President Wilson — and you have a new exhibit. Two, in fact: one in Kansas City, Mo., at the Hallmark Visitors Center, and one in Staunton, Va., at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum. (Wilson was a Staunton native and, coincidentally, Jarvis graduated from a college there.)

Give Hallmark credit for including in its display a thank-you letter from Jarvis to Wilson, because Jarvis was no fan of card makers. In her view, the holiday she crusaded for — a day she’d hoped would be reverential and contemplative – was ruined by commercialization as early as the 1920s.

By some accounts, she spent the rest of her life trying to take back, actually rescind, Mother’s Day.

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world,” Jarvis reportedly said. “And candy! You take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A petty sentiment.”

She’s said to have called florists and the makers of greeting cards and candy “charlatans, bandits, pirates” and even … termites.

She had a way with words, that Anna Jarvis.

To learn about her we turned to Andrew Phillips, curator at the museum in Virginia, who was in Kansas City earlier this month to drop off Wilson family artifacts for the exhibit.

The notion of a Mother’s Day was initially a “fairly radical idea,” Phillips says, part of the broader movement toward women’s rights and equality in the 1860s and ‘70s. Julia Ward Howe’s 1870 poem A Mother’s Day Proclamation, coming just after the carnage of the Civil War, was really a call for peace. (You may know Howe for writing The Battle Hymn of the Republic.)

Anna Jarvis’ mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, was an activist who offered medical care to soldiers of both sides during the war, primarily in West Virginia. She organized Mothers’ Day work clubs, aid organizations that tried to lower infant mortality, among other public health projects.

It was her death on May 9, 1905, that led to what we know as Mother’s Day.

Around the second anniversary of her mother’s passing, Anna Jarvis honored her at a small gathering of friends at her home in Philadelphia. And on May 10, 1908, Jarvis arranged for 500 white carnations, her mom’s favorite flower, to be handed out in a ceremony at the Grafton, W.Va., church where her mother had taught Sunday school.

The campaign for an official Mother’s Day would slowly build, starting with proclamations by communities in West Virginia, then spreading to other cities and states. West Virginia made it a holiday in 1910. Jarvis, who started a group called Mother’s Day International Association Inc. (she was president), and others lobbied government officials by writing thousands of letters.

And on May 8, 1914, the U.S. Congress, in a joint resolution, established the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day. The next day, Wilson issued a proclamation. The document (a copy of which is in the Hallmark exhibit) urged Americans to display flags “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

Jarvis thanked the president (”Your Excellency”) in a letter. Mother’s Day, she wrote, would be “a great Home Day of our country for sons and daughters to honor their mothers and fathers and homes in a way that will perpetuate family ties and give emphasis to true home life.”

As far as we know, Phillips says, Anna Jarvis herself was not a wife or mother.

The holiday she worked so hard for was supposed to be about sentiment, not profit. Jarvis chafed at the idea of giving mothers store-bought anything. She started complaining almost right away about how the day was being misinterpreted.

By the early 1920s, Hallmark and other companies had started selling Mother’s Day cards.

Jarvis, meanwhile, organized boycotts and threatened lawsuits to try to stop the commercialization. She crashed a candymakers convention in Philadelphia in 1923. Two years later she did the same at a confab of the American War Mothers, which raised money by selling carnations, the flower associated with Mother’s Day.

That time, Jarvis was pulled away screaming and arrested for disturbing the peace.

She died — penniless and in a sanitarium, by some accounts — in 1948.

As for Woodrow Wilson’s connection to Mother’s Day, “we can’t give him too much credit, really,” Phillips says.

But there are a couple of things to be said for the 28th president on the subject of women and mothers.

Phillips says Wilson was very much influenced by strong women, including his mother and his first wife, Ellen, an impressionist artist who signed her works “Edward Wilson” because she wanted her art to stand on its own.

Ellen died of a kidney disease the very year her husband declared Mother’s Day a holiday. One of their three daughters served as first lady until Wilson remarried in December 1915.

At the Hallmark Visitors Center, a wall adjacent to a display case of Wilson artifacts shows off Mother’s Day cards from the Hallmark archives. Founder Joyce C. Hall had started selling cards in 1910 in Kansas City. Around 1915, his company began making its own Christmas cards and valentines and branched out to other holidays soon after.

A lot of those early Mother’s Day cards reflected “women’s work” around the house. Another prevailing theme: “a lot of floral throughout the decades,” Hallmark historian Samantha Bradbeer says.

Something else you notice is “Mother.” Not “Mom,” which didn’t become common on Hallmark cards until the 1980s. But those early Mother’s Day cards were targeted at adult buyers; cards marketed to children started appearing in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Cards for grandmothers were sold early on. “Hello, Grandma!” exults one from the ‘20s. (Now there are Mother’s Day cards for great-grandmothers.) A card from the ‘30s is “To Someone Who’s Been Like a Mother to Me.”

By the 1960s, the Hallmark moms finally started moving out of the kitchen and into the workplace. One card from that era depicts a woman at a desk behind a typewriter. Are we to conclude she’s a secretary? Maybe, but the briefcase on the floor might suggest more.

More casual sentiments and humor in Mother’s Day cards came along in the 1960s. Among them: cards featuring the “Peanuts” comic strip characters, starting in 1960.

Still, if Hallmark cards are a barometer, we regard dads differently from moms. There’s still far more humor found in Father’s Day cards. About four-fifths of Mother’s Day cards fall into the “loving” category, and floral designs and adorable animals are still common.

Mother’s Day founder Anna Jarvis would likely be unimpressed, although it’s nice to think she’d appreciate how the holiday has endured: We still love Mom, and one day every spring we pause to remind her of that.

A DAY FOR DAD . . . EVENTUALLY

As you now know, Mother’s Day celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. As for Father’s Day, it will hit the century mark in . . . 2072.

Calls for a national holiday celebrating dads go way back — even President Woodrow Wilson, who signed Mother’s Day into law, gave it a go in 1916. But Father’s Day didn’t become a permanent U.S. holiday until 1972, when Richard M. Nixon signed a presidential resolution making Dad’s special day the third Sunday in June.

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