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The Surprisingly Radical History of Mother's Day

Modern Mother's Day

mother getting flowers from her little girl
Nowadays, Mother's Day is often celebrated with flowers, chocolates and other gifts. Jarvis decried the commercialism of the holiday. Ariel Skelley/Getty Images


Ann Reeves Jarvis was one of several postwar influencers who promoted peace. In 1870, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe also took a stand, notably as author of a well-publicized "Mother's Day Proclamation" urging women to promote peace through political means.

Howe, who had written the Civil War anthem "Battle Hymn of the Republic" years earlier, had become a pacifist after living through the Civil War (where 620,000 soldiers died) and reading accounts of the Franco-Prussian War that followed [source: Kohls]. Howe and other women organized events driven by their pacifist leanings, including Mother's Days for Peace, which were held annually in various locations across the U.S. on June 2 [source: Rosen]. These eventually fell out of favor.

By Jarvis' death in 1905, her daughter Anna was ready to take up the cause. She held a church service on the second Sunday in May, 1908 to honor her mother. Mrs. Jarvis had once said that she hoped there would be one day be a memorial day for mothers, adding, "There are many days for men, but none for mothers."

The custom spread, as Anna publicized it through letters to newspapers and politicians. She lobbied enthusiastically to institute a national holiday that would personalize the mothers' movement by encouraging sons and daughters to honor their own mothers. In 1914, then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson officially named the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day [source: Pruitt].

Almost as soon as the proclamation ink dried, merchants began advertising candies, flowers and greeting cards to commemorate the day. This disturbed Anna, who believed it was being corrupted from her intention of an intimate celebration of one's own mother.

In the years that followed, she tried to reverse the commercialization of Mother's Day, spending her sizable inheritance, along with her energy, on boycotts and lawsuits against groups that violated the spirit of the day. In 1923, she crashed a confectioners' convention. In 1925, she protested the American War Mothers convention, which used Mother's Day as a fundraising event by selling carnations. She was arrested for disturbing the peace [source: Handwerk].

Her efforts, though nearly impossible to ignore, went largely unanswered. She died penniless in a sanitarium in 1948, having no children of her own. Mother's Day continued to gain momentum. Today, it's an international holiday celebrated in 152 countries [source: The Library of Congress].

Last editorial update on May 8, 2020 04:02:48 pm.

Author's Note: What does Mother's Day have to do with the Civil War?

I had no idea. Yes, I'd heard of Ann Reeves Jarvis, her daughter and Julia Ward Howe. But Mother's Day as a radical movement meant to disseminate peace? For me, that was a first -- and one that changed my perspective. I've always thought of Mother's Day as a perfunctory holiday. First, as an excuse to honor my mom (very deserving, by the way), then as a holiday for myself that is more often spent at graduations or ball tournaments than something specifically meant for me. Knowing its roots, I'm ready to rethink my celebration.

Related Articles


  • Anna Jarvis Birthplace Museum. "About Us." (March 2, 2014)!about-us
  • Handwerk, Brian. "Mother's Day Dark History." National Geographic. May 11, 2012. (March 2, 2014)
  • Kohls, Gary. "The Anti-War Message of Mother's Day." May 8, 2011. (March 2, 2014)
  • International Mother's Day Shrine. "The Founding of Mother's Day." (March 2, 2014)
  • National Retail Federation. "Consumers Look to Pamper Mom with iPads, Jewelry This Mother's Day. April 30, 2013. (March 2, 2014)
  • Pruitt, Sarah. "Why the Founder of Mother's Day Turned Against It." History. May 10, 2013. (March 5, 2014)
  • Rosen, Ruth. "Soap to Ploughshares." Slate. May 8, 2009. (March 2, 2014)
  • The Library of Congress. "Mother's Day Observance." (March 2, 2014)
  • The National Women's History Project. "History of Mother's Day." (March 2, 2014)
  • Tyler-McGraw, Marie. "Mother's Day Revisited." 1977. (March 2, 2014)
  • West Virginia Division of Culture and History. "Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis." (March 2, 2014)