“And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”
Anna Jarvis was indistinguishable among the women attending the American War Mothers’ 1925 convention—but not for long. Jarvis was infuriated that the organization was selling white carnations as a Mother’s Day fundraiser. She became so disruptive that the police were called and Jarvis was hauled, still screaming, to jail. Two years earlier she similarly crashed the confectioner’s convention. She gained further notoriety by marching into the Wanamaker’s department store Tea Room, ordering the special Mother’s Day salad and throwing it to the floor before striding out. When she wasn’t publicly demonstrating, she was litigating. Discovering that New York’s Governor Al Smith was planning a large Mother’s Day celebration, she threatened to sue. The event was cancelled. In 1933 the Post Office was preparing a commemorative Mother’s Day stamp featuring the portrait “Whistler’s Mother” altered to include a vase of white carnations. Jarvis angrily demanded that the words Mother’s Day be kept off the stamp. Once again, she prevailed. Anna Jarvis hated Mother’s Day—or at least what it had become.
This animosity is all the more surprising since Jarvis was the mother of Mother’s Day (always with an apostrophe—the day was for your mother not all mothers). The inspiration for Mother’s Day was Jarvis’ own mother; Ann Marie. Mother Jarvis had been an ardent public health practitioner, post-Civil war conciliator and long time Sunday School Superintendent. It was in Sunday School, after a lesson on Mothers of the Bible, that Anna recalled her mother praying, “I hope that someone sometime will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.” After her mother died on the second Sunday in May in 1905, Jarvis set about doing just that.
Educated, wealthy and connected (she was friends with Woodrow Wilson) Jarvis demonstrated a fierce determination to establish a national day of commemoration. Though politicians were initially dismissive, commercial interests were not. Florists, card-makers, confectioners and retailers all eagerly embraced the idea. Only three years after her mother’s death, the first Mother’s Day celebrations were simultaneously held in Jarvis’ home town of Grafton and in Philadelphia. Six years later Wilson would officially designate the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
Jarvis conceived of Mother’s Day as a simple affair. It involved the gift of a single white carnation, a hand-written, heartfelt note and a day off for mom. Of course it rapidly morphed into much more. As the day became more commercialized and less personal, Jarvis dedicated all her efforts to turning the tide and finally to having it removed as a national holiday. She died bitter and broke.
This year we’ll spend $20 billion on Mother’s Day. But there’s something really compelling about Jarvis’ original concept. Beauty, simplicity and a genuine expression of love. Do you think mom wants anything more? —Ebert