It took the individual effort of each Jarvis, mother and daughter, over two generations to forge the Mother’s Day we recognize today. And it’s a story with a twist, so buckle up!
Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, of Grafton WV, had attempted starting a series of Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in Webster, Grafton, Fetterman, Pruntytown, and Philippi in 1858 to improve sanitation. She continued to organize women throughout the Civil War to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides.
In the summer of 1865, Jarvis organized a Mothers’ Friendship Day at the courthouse in Pruntytown to bring together soldiers and neighbors of all political beliefs. The goal was to work in conjunction with local doctors to provide health care to war veterans plagued by diseases such dysentery, small pox, and tuberculosis.
The event was a great success despite the fear of many that it would erupt in violence. Mothers’ Friendship Day was an annual event for several years.
Ann Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Jarvis, would of course have known of her mother’s work. Much later, this second Jarvis started her own crusade to found a memorial day for women.
After her husband’s death in 1902, Ann moved to Philadelphia to live with her son Claude and daughters Anna and Lillian. Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis died in Bala-Cynwyd, west of Philadelphia, on May 9, 1905 at the age of 72.
Anna led a small tribute to her mother at St. Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church back in Grafton, where her Mother had spent 25 years teaching Sunday School, on May 12, 1907. Then on May 10, 1908, the first official Mother’s Day celebration took place at both that church and also at the Wanamaker Store Auditorium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
John Wanamaker was one of the founders of today’s modern day department store. He no doubt recognized the profit possibilities of a potentially national event that could generate lots of gift sales, and he had the finances to push it. And as a former U.S. postmaster general, he had the political weight to advance it.
That same year, Elmer Burkett, a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, proposed making Mother’s Day a national holiday at the request of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The proposal was defeated, but by 1909 forty-six states, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico, were holding Mother’s Day services.
Anna Jarvis devoted herself full time to the creation of Mother’s Day, endlessly petitioning state governments, business leaders, women groups, churches and other institutions and organizations. She did have her ticks: she incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association, and claimed copyright on the second Sunday of May.
She finally convinced the World’s Sunday School Association, a key influence over state legislators and Congress, to back her. In 1912 West Virginia became the first state to officially recognize Mother’s Day, and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance, declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
By the 1920s, Anna Jarvis had become soured on the holiday’s commercialization. She and her sister Ellsinore ultimately spent themselves into poverty campaigning against the holiday.
In 1943, the 79 year old Jarvis, partially deaf and blind, entered a sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania. For reasons unrecorded, the Florists’ Exchange, a trade association, picked up some of her bills, unbeknownst to her. And even after she told a reporter she was sorry she ever started the whole thing, she received thousands of Mother’s Day cards each May until she died, in 1948.
“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,” she is quoted as saying in her New York Times obituary. “And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment!”
She never married and was never a mother.