If Mother’s Day is a special event in your family, you may thank Anna Marie Jarvis for providing the occasion. She is the person who conducted a one-woman campaign to make it a nationwide observance.
She did it to honor her own mother, Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis, who gave birth to 11 children, only four of whom (including Anna) survived. Mrs. Jarvis was not only a much-loved mother, but also quite an activist in her church and community (principally, Grafton, W.Va.), organizing various Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to promote civic virtue, health, and humane treatment of Civil War veterans, both northern and southern.
When Mrs. Jarvis died, after a lifetime of church and community involvement, her daughter resolved to keep her memory alive by observing the anniversary of her burial, May 9, 1905, each year.
Two years later, Anna, then living in Philadelphia, returned to Grafton to lead a special memorial in honor of her mother. She had decided that too many adults were negligent of their own mothers and set out to make her personal commemoration a national one.
Anna had no family of her own, but she had a cause. She was a forceful speaker and seconded her efforts by encouraging her friends to send letters to national leaders urging the establishment of a May Mother’s Day in every state.
She made little headway until a rich Philadelphia merchant, Sam Wanamaker, joined the cause. The next year, the city of Philadelphia observed Mother’s Day, and by 1911, services were being held in 45 states and the adjacent countries of Canada and Mexico.
Miss Jarvis set both the date for the holiday — on or close to May 9 — and the basic protocol of wearing a carnation, which was her mother’s favorite flower. She decreed the flower should be white for a mother deceased and red for a mother still living, a scrupulously followed practice in my childhood.
In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the national observance of Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May, where it is permanently rooted. While no longer so closely tied to church services, it remains a good day for family activities. (We’re having a Mother’s Day home tour on Mother’s Day this year in Rock Island’s Broadway District).
It has been a Hallmark fixture for many years now and has prompted that company to get other family members into the act. Thus, we now have Father’s Day, Grandparents’ Day, and Kid’s Day. For all I know, there may even be a Disreputable Uncle Day.
If you are one of those disillusioned souls who, while honoring your own personal mother, deplores the nationwide commercialization of Mother’s Day, you have a major-league champion on your side: Anna Marie Jarvis.
That’s right: The woman who talked the country into establishing Mother’s Day ended her days trying to scrub the whole thing. She was bitterly disappointed in the way the sentiment she pioneered became an occasion for commerce.
“A printed card means nothing,” she fulminated. “Nothing except that you are too lazy to write the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother — then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment!”
Anna and her sister Ellsinore became public scolds on the subject and spent their final years and most of their money opposing the holiday.
But once something like Mother’s Day strikes a responsive chord in society, you have little chance of turning it around. Besides, what would replace it: Neglect Your Mother Day?
No, Mother’s Day was a good idea; too good to be one person’s private possession. (Miss Jarvis incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association and tried to copyright the second Sunday in May.)
It is perhaps ironic that despite her second thoughts on the subject, Anna Marie Jarvis remains famed as the one who inspired one of our most familiar national observances. You’ll find tributes to her at the International Mother’s Day Shrine in Grafton, W.Va., and her birthplace, four miles south of Grafton, is now a museum.
It is also worth noting that, after her death in Philadelphia on Nov. 14, 1948, at the age of 84, newspapers across the country reported her passing and her role in honoring the world’s mothers.
They hadn’t forgotten her in Grafton either. On the day of her burial, the Andrews Methodist Church bells in Grafton tolled 84 times.