The Founder of Mother’s Day Later Fought to Have It Abolished

Years after she founded Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis was dining at the Tea  Room at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. She saw they were offering  a “Mother’s Day Salad.” She ordered the salad and when it was served, she stood  up, dumped it on the floor, left the money to pay for it, and walked out in a  huff. Jarvis had lost control of the holiday she helped create, and she was  crushed by her belief that commercialism was destroying Mother’s Day.

Anna Jarvis image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS

During the Civil War, Anna’s mother, Ann Jarvis, cared for the wounded on  both sides of the conflict. She also tried to orchestrate peace between Union  and Confederate moms by forming a Mother’s Friendship Day. When the elder Jarvis  passed away in 1905, her daughter was devastated. She would read the sympathy  cards and letters over and over, taking the time to underline all the words that  praised and complimented her mother. Jarvis found an outlet to memorialize her  mother by working to promote a day that would honor all mothers.

On May 10, 1908, Mother’s Day events were held  at the church where her mother taught Sunday School in Grafton, West Virginia,  and at the Wanamaker’s department store auditorium in Philadelphia. Jarvis did  not attend the event in Grafton, but she sent 500 white carnations, her mother’s  favorite flower. The carnations were to be worn by sons and daughters in honor  of their own mothers, and to represent the purity of a mother’s love.

Spreading the Word

Mother’s Day quickly caught on because of Jarvis’s zealous letter writing and  promotional campaigns across the country and the world. She was assisted by  well-heeled backers like John Wanamaker and H.J. Heinz, and she soon devoted  herself full-time to the promotion of Mother’s Day.

In 1909 several senators mocked the very idea of a Mother’s Day holiday.  Senator Henry Moore Teller (D-CO) scorned the resolution as “puerile,”  “absolutely absurd,” and “trifling.” He announced, “Every day with me is a  mother’s day.” Senator Jacob Gallinger (R-NH) judged the very idea of Mother’s  Day to be an insult, as though his memory of his late mother “could only be kept  green by some outward demonstration on Sunday, May 10.”

This didn’t deter Jarvis. She enlisted the help of organizations like the  World’s Sunday School Association, and the holiday sailed through Congress with  little opposition in 1914.

The floral industry wisely supported Jarvis’s Mother’s Day movement. She  accepted their donations and spoke at their conventions. With each subsequent  Mother’s Day, the wearing of carnations became a must-have item. Florists across  the country quickly sold out of white carnations around Mother’s Day—newspapers  told stories of hoarding and profiteering. The floral industry later came up  with an idea to diversify sales by promoting the practice of wearing red or  bright flowers in honor of living mothers, and white flowers for deceased  moms.

Too Commercial

Jarvis soon soured on the commercial interests associated with the day. She  wanted Mother’s Day “to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” Beginning around  1920, she urged people to stop buying flowers and other gifts for their mothers,  and she turned against her former commercial supporters. She referred to the  florists, greeting card manufacturers and the confectionery industry as  “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would  undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and  celebrations.”

In response to the floral industry, she had thousands of celluloid buttons made featuring the white carnation, which she sent free of charge to women’s, school and church groups. She attempted to stop the floral industry by threatening to file lawsuits and by applying to trademark the carnation together with the words “Mother’s Day,” though she was denied the trademark. In response to her legal threats, the Florist Telegraph Delivery (FTD) association offered her a commission on the sales of Mother’s Day carnations, but this only enraged her further.
Jarvis’s attempts to stop  the florists’ promotion of Mother’s Day with carnations continued. In 1934, the  United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Mother’s Day. They used a  painting colloquially known as Whistler’s Mother for the image, by artist James  Whistler. Jarvis was livid after she saw the resulting stamp because she  believed the addition of the vase of carnations was an advertisement for the  floral industry.

Jarvis’s ideal observance of Mother’s Day would be a visit home or writing a  long letter to your mother. She couldn’t stand those who sold and used greeting  cards: “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing  except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than  anyone else in the world.” She also said, “Any mother would rather have a line  of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”

Going Rogue

Jarvis fought against charities that used Mother’s Day for fundraising. She  was dragged screaming out of a meeting of the American War Mothers by police and  arrested for disturbing the peace in her attempts to stop the sale of  carnations. She even wrote screeds against Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s  Day to raise money (for charities that worked to combat high maternal and infant  mortality rates, the very type of work Jarvis’s mother did during her  lifetime).

In one of her last appearances in public, Jarvis was seen going door-to-door  in Philadelphia, asking for signatures on a petition to rescind Mother’s Day. In  her twilight years, she became a recluse and a hoarder.

Jarvis spent her last days deeply in debt and living in the Marshall Square  Sanitarium, a now-closed mental asylum in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She died  on November 24, 1948. Jarvis was never told that her bill for her time at the  asylum was partly paid for by a group of grateful florists.

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