The Dark And Tragic History of Mother's Day


This year marks 100 years since President Woodrow Wilson officially deemed the second Sunday of May to be Mother’s Day. And even though Mother’s Day is a great occasion (official reminder) to celebrate our moms and the idea of motherhood, the history of the holiday is incredibly sad—an example of standard commercialization and the toll it can take.

Brian Handwerk at National Geographic has penned a great overview of the story behind the holiday. Anna Jarvis, a social activist in the 1800s is credited as being the founder of the Mother’s Day holiday, but the idea behind Mother’s Day goes back to Jarvis’ own mother Ann Reeves Jarvis. Ann was a women’s organizer who held Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in the 1850s to promote sanitation and improve the infant mortality rate and organized post-Civil War Mother’s Friendship Days, encouraging women to advocate for peace.

When Ann Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter Anna decided to organize the first Mother’s Day celebrations, a personal and profound commemoration of the strong maternal figures in peoples’ lives, but as the celebration spread, the meaning and intention behind it began to shift. As Handwerk writes:

Anna Jarvis’s idea of an intimate Mother’s Day quickly became a commercial gold mine centering on the buying and giving of flowers, candies, and greeting cards—a development that deeply disturbed Jarvis. She set about dedicating herself and her sizable inheritance to returning Mother’s Day to its reverent roots.
Jarvis incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association and tried to retain some control of the holiday. She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and even attacked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities.

Jarvis was eventually placed in the Marshall Square Sanitarium, where she died in 1944, totally broke and with severe dementia. The woman who had continued her mother’s tradition of bringing other mothers together in celebration was betrayed by her own cause and the consumerism that absorbs pretty much all major observances. And we all thought Valentine’s Day was commercialization at its worst. Still it seems even more cruel to credit Jarvis with the holiday that she fought against just as much as she campaigned for.

So um, you know, Happy Mother’s Day everyone. At least those of you who forgot to send your mother a card (guilty every year) can have the excuse that it was in direct protest of consumerism?

Image via Getty.

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