What Is the Origin of Father's Day?

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Father's Day in the U.S. is celebrated on the third Sunday of June each year. iStockphoto/Thinkstock

On the third Sunday of every June in the United States, sons and daughters across the country honor their fathers with cards, gifts and a little encouragement to kick back. You might buy dad a tie without thinking twice, but have you ever stopped to wonder how this celebration got started?

The first recorded observance of Father's Day in the U.S. was on July 5, 1908. At the suggestion of either Mrs. Grace Golden Clayton or Jessica Clinton Clayton, the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South in Fairmont, W.Va., held a special service to honor 360 men -- most of them fathers -- who had died in a coal mine explosion seven months earlier. This particular Father's Day service was an isolated event that wasn't repeated in later years.

West Virginia erected a historical marker in 1985 claiming credit for holding the first Father's Day observance, but they don't claim credit for promoting the idea as a national holiday. That honor goes to a young woman from Spokane, Wash., who is considered the original and most influential proponent of Father's Day.

Inspired by a church service honoring mothers, Mrs. Sonora Louise Smart Dodd (1882-1978) wanted fathers to be similarly honored. In particular, she wanted to honor her father, William Jackson Smart. Smart raised Sonora and her five siblings alone after his wife died in childbirth when Sonora was 16.

In 1909, Dodd petitioned her minister and the Spokane Ministerial Association to honor fathers in a special church service. Her diligence in promoting Father's Day paid off a year later. The first Father's Day observances in Spokane took place on the third Sunday in June, the day Dodd had proposed. The Spokane Ministerial Association, the Spokane Ministers Alliance and the Spokane Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) gave the celebration their support. The mayor of Spokane and the governor of Washington, M.E. Hay, issued proclamations establishing the third Sunday in June as Father's Day. William Jennings Bryan, a renowned orator and political figure of the time, also spoke in favor of the idea, stating that "too much emphasis cannot be placed upon the relation between parent and child" [source: Christianson].

Despite the auspicious beginning, it took years and the intervention of several U.S. presidents to establish Father's Day as a national holiday. See who played a role on the next page.