(The following article by Audrey Fischer is from the May/June 2016 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, soon to be available here. In the meantime, make sure to catch up on all our editions!)
One West Virginia daughter succeeded in memorializing mothers everywhere.
Greeting cards, flowers, candy, dining out—Mother’s Day is big business. Sales figures for the popular retail holiday topped $20 billion in the U.S. last year.
No one was more dismayed by the commercialization of Mother’s Day than Anna Jarvis (1864-
1848 1948), the woman who spearheaded the effort to memorialize mothers more than a century ago.
The ninth of 11 children, Jarvis was born in Webster, West Virginia on May 1, 1864. Her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, was a social activist who founded Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to combat poor health and sanitation conditions in the area. Only four of her children survived to adulthood. The others succumbed to such diseases as measles, typhoid fever and diphtheria, which were common in Appalachian communities. She also led her community’s effort to tend to wounded soldiers—the Blue and the Gray—during the Civil War.
After the war, Mrs. Jarvis continued to unite the deeply divided community by spearheading “Mothers Friendship Day” for the families of Confederate and Union soldiers. During one of her Sunday school lessons, she told the children that she hoped and prayed someone would devote a day to honor mothers.
The sentiment wasn’t lost on her daughter. Following her mother’s death on May 9, 1905, Anna began a campaign to honor her mother and mothers everywhere. Three years later, Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, was the site of the first official Mother’s Day celebration. The church has since been designated the “International Mother’s Day Shrine.”
Jarvis continued to campaign for a national holiday. Her efforts culminated in legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Woodrow Wilson on May 9, 1914, that declared flags be flown “on the second Sunday in May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” The first national celebration was held on May 10, 1914.
A victim of her movement’s success, Jarvis spent much of the rest of her life railing against the increasing commercialization of the holiday all over the world. Her protests, which began first with florists, escalated to arrests for public disturbances. She even took First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to task for using the holiday to promote the health and welfare of women and children—a cause that her mother championed. Increasingly erratic, Jarvis died in a sanitarium in 1948.
Mother’s Day is a singular possessive because Anna Jarvis intended for the holiday to honor “the best mother who ever lived, yours.”
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