Mother's Day: A History of Celebrations

Lucy Stone with daughter Alice Stone Blackwell
Lucy Stone with daughter Alice Stone Blackwell. Courtesy Library of Congress
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A History of Mother's Day

Mother and daughter
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Mother's Day is often complicated by troubled relationships with mothers and children, tragic losses, gender identity, and more. We may be conscious of many people in our lives who "mothered" us. In history, there have been many different ways of celebrating mothers and motherhood.

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International Mother's Days Today

Boy giving his mother a gift
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In addition to the popular Mother's Day holiday in the United States, many cultures celebrate a Mother's Day:

  • Mother's Day in Britain—or Mothering Sunday—is the fourth Sunday in Lent.
  • The second Sunday in May is Mother's Day not only in the United States, but also in other countries including Denmark, Finland, Italy, Turkey, Australia and Belgium. By the end of Anna Jarvis' life, Mother's Day was celebrated in more than 40 countries.
  • In Spain, Mother's Day is December 8, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, so that not only mothers in one's family are honored, but also Mary, mother of Jesus.
  • In France, Mother's Day is on the last Sunday of May. A special cake resembling a bouquet of flowers is presented to mothers at a family dinner.
  • The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament, the League of Women Voters and other organizations still organize protests on Mother's Day: The Million Mom March, protests at nuclear weapons sites, etc.
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Ancient Celebrations of Mothers and Motherhood

Four Mother Goddesses of Roman Britain
Four Mother Goddesses of Roman Britain. Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images

People in many ancient cultures celebrated holidays honoring motherhood, personified as a goddess. Here are just a few of those:

  • Ancient Greeks celebrated a holiday in honor of Rhea, the mother of the gods.
  • Ancient Romans celebrated a holiday in honor of Cybele, a mother goddess, March 22-25 - the celebrations were notorious enough that followers of Cybele were banished from Rome.
  • In the British Isles and Celtic Europe, the goddess Brigid, and later her successor St. Brigid, were honored with a spring Mother's Day, connected with the first milk of the ewes.
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Mothering Sunday in Britain

The Mother's Prayer. (Sculpture), By W.C. Marshall, R.A.
The Mother's Prayer. (Sculpture), By W.C. Marshall, R.A. Liszt Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

 Mothering Sunday was celebrated in Britain beginning in the 17th century

  • It was honored on the fourth Sunday in Lent.
  • It began as a day when apprentices and servants could return home for the day to visit their mothers.
  • They often brought a gift with them, often a "mothering cake" -- a kind of fruitcake or fruit-filled pastry known as simnels.
  • Furmety, a sweetened boiled cereal dish, was often served at the family dinner during Mothering Sunday celebrations.
  • By the 19th century, the holiday had almost completely died out.
  • Mother's Day in Britain—or Mothering Sunday—came to be celebrated again after World War II, when American servicemen brought the custom and commercial enterprises used it as an occasion for sales, etc.
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Mothers' Work Days

'The Bereaved Mother', 1872.
'The Bereaved Mother', 1872. Probably based on the US Civil War experience. The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

The earliest Mothers' Day or Mothers' Work Days (plural "mothers") began in 1858 in West Virginia

  • Ann Reeves Jarvis, a local teacher and church member and mother of Anna Jarvis, wanted to work for improved sanitation in her town.
  • During the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis extended the purpose of Mothers' Work. Days to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides in the conflict.
  • After the Civil War, she worked to establish a reconciliation between people who had supported the two sides in the war. 
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Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day for Peace

A Younger Julia Ward Howe (About 1855)
A Younger Julia Ward Howe (About 1855). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Julia Ward Howe also tried to establish a Mother's Day in America

  • Howe became well-known during and after the American Civil War as the author of the words to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," but was horrified by the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War.
  • In 1870, she tried to issue a manifesto for peace at international peace conferences in London and Paris (it was much like the later Mother's Day Peace Proclamation)
  • In 1872, she began promoting the idea of a "Mother's Day for Peace" to be celebrated on June 2, honoring peace, motherhood and womanhood. 
  • In 1873, women in 18 cities in America held a Mother's Day for Pace gathering.
  • Boston celebrated the Mother's Day for Peace for at least 10 years.
  • The celebrations died out when Howe was no longer paying most of the cost for them, although some celebrations continued for 30 years.
  • Howe turned her efforts to working for peace and women's rights in other ways.
  • A stamp was issued in honor of Julia Ward Howe in 1988 (no mention of Mother's Day, though.)
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Anna Jarvis and Mother's Day

Anna Jarvis, About 1900
Anna Jarvis, About 1900. FPG / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Anna Jarvis, daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, who had moved from Grafton, West Virginia, to Philadelphia, in 1890, was the power behind the official establishment of Mother's Day

  • She swore at her mother's gravesite in 1905 to dedicate her life to her mother's project, and establish a Mother's Day to honor mothers, living and dead.
  • A persistent rumor is that Anna's grief was intensified because she and her mother had quarreled and her mother died before they could reconcile.
  • In 1907 she passed out 500 white carnations at her mother's church, St. Andrew's Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia—one for each mother in the congregation.
  • May 10, 1908: the first church—St. Andrew's in Grafton, West Virginia—responded to her request for a Sunday service honoring mothers
  • 1908: John Wanamaker, a Philadelphia merchant, joined the campaign for Mother's Day
  • Also in 1908: the first bill was presented in the U.S. Senate proposing establishment of Mother's Day, by Nebraska Senator Elmer Burkett, at the request of the Young Men's Christian Association. The proposal was killed by sending it back to committee, 33-14.
  • 1909: Mother's Day services were held in 46 states plus Canada and Mexico.
  • Anna Jarvis gave up her job—sometimes reported as a teaching job, sometimes as a job clerking in an insurance office—to work full-time writing letters to politicians, clergy members, business leaders, women's clubs and anyone else she thought might have some influence. 
  • Anna Jarvis was able to enlist the World's Sunday School Association in the lobbying campaign, a key success factor in convincing legislators in states and in the U.S. Congress to support the holiday. 
  • 1912: West Virginia became the first state to adopt an official Mother's Day.
  • 1914: the U.S. Congress passed a Joint Resolution, and President Woodrow Wilson signed it, establishing Mother's Day, emphasizing women's role in the family (not as activists in the public arena, as Howe's Mother's Day had been)
  • Texas Senators Cotton Tom Heflin and Morris Shepard introduced the joint resolution adopted in 1914. Both were ardent prohibitionists.
  • Anna Jarvis became increasingly concerned over the commercialization of Mother's Day: "I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit." She opposed the selling of flowers (see below) and also the use of greeting cards: "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write."
  • 1923: Anna Jarvis filed suit against New York Governor Al Smith, over a Mother's Day celebration; when a court threw the suit out, she began a public protest and was arrested for disturbing the peace. 
  • 1931: Anna Jarvis criticized Eleanor Roosevelt for her work with a Mother's Day committee that was not Jarvis' committee. 
  • Anna Jarvis never had children of her own. She died in 1948, blind and penniless, and was buried next to her mother in a cemetery in the Philadelphia area.

Mother's Day Landmark:

  • The International Mother's Day Shrine: this church in Grafton, West Virginia, was the site of the first unofficial Mother's Day celebration as created by Anna Jarvis, May 10, 1907.
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Carnations, Anna Jarvis, and Mother's Day

Carnations
Carnations. Emrah Turudu/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Anna Jarvis used carnations at the first Mother's Day celebration because carnations were her mother's favorite flower.

  • Wearing a white carnation is to honor a deceased mother, wearing a pink carnation is to honor a living mother.
  • Anna Jarvis and the florist industry ended up disagreeing over the selling of flowers for Mother's Day.
  • As the industry publication, Florists' Review, put it, "This was a holiday that could be exploited."
  • In one press release criticizing the floral industry, Anna Jarvis wrote "What will you do to route charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?"
  • When, in the 1930s, the U.S. Postal Service announced a Mother's Day stamp with the image of Whistler's Mother and a vase of white carnations, Anna Jarvis responded by campaigning against the stamp. She persuaded President Roosevelt to remove the words, Mother's Day, but not the white carnations
  • Jarvis disrupted a meeting of the American War Mothers in the 1930s, protesting their sale of white carnations for Mother's Day, and was removed by the police
  • In the words, again, of the Florists' Review, "Miss Jarvis was completely squelched." Mother's Day remains, in the United States, one of the best sales days for florists
  • Anna Jarvis was confined to a nursing home at the end of her life, penniless. Her nursing home bills were paid, unbeknownst to her, by the Florist's Exchange. 
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Mother's Day Statistics

Motherhood
Motherhood. Kelvin Murray / Stone / Getty Images

• In the United States, there are about 82.5 million mothers. (source: US Census Bureau)

• About 96% of American consumers take part in some way in Mother's Day (source: Hallmark)

• Mother's Day is widely reported as the peak day of the year for long distance telephone calls.

• There are more than 23,000 florists in the United States with a total of more than 125,000 employees. Colombia is the leading foreign supplier of cut flowers and fresh flower buds to the US. California produces two-thirds of domestic production of cut flowers. (source: US Census Bureau)

• Mother's Day is the busiest day of the year for many restaurants.

• Retailers report that Mother's Day is the second highest gift-giving holiday in the United States (Christmas is the highest).

• Most popular month for having babies in the U.S. is August, and most popular weekday is Tuesday. (source: US Census Bureau)

• About twice as many young women were childfree in the year 2000 as in the 1950s (source: Ralph Fevre, The Guardian, Manchester, March 26, 2001)

• In the US, 82% of women ages 40-44 are mothers. This compares to 90% in 1976. (source: US Census Bureau)

• In Utah and Alaska, women on the average will have three children before the end of their childbearing years. Overall, the average in the United States is two. (source: US Census Bureau)

• In 2002, the 55% of American women with infant children were in the workforce, compared to 31% in 1976, and down from 59% in 1998. In 2002, there were 5.4 million stay-at-home mothers in the US. (source: US Census Bureau)