Mother’s Day Turns 100: Its Lugubrious History

As of May 11th this year, Mother’s Day has become a centurion. Oblivious of its dark roots, we’ve allowed the holiday to become an unstoppable commercial comet. “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” – Abraham Lincoln


Usually in the month of March or May, Mother’s Day is a commemoration honouring mothers and motherhood. The holiday complements many other similar celebrations, such as Father’s Day and Siblings Day. In Canada, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday of May. Though the holiday is recognized and revered internationally, it’s neither a public or a bank holiday.

As Mother’s Day turns 100 this year, it’s mostly known for its brunches, flowers, and gifts. Yet, the holiday has somber roots connected to fallen soldiers and mourning women. According to historian Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College, the seeds were sowed in the 1850s. West Virginia’s Ann Reeves Jarvis, a woman’s organizer, held mother’s day workshops to ameliorate sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination.

During the U.S. Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, Jarvis and her groups helped tend soldiers on both sides. In the postwar years, Jarvis and other women organized events with pacifist strategies in order to unite former foes. About that time, Jarvis had began to promote Mother’s Friendship Day for Union and Confederate loyalists across the state. However, Ann’s daughter, Anna, will be the one responsible for the formation of Mother’s Day as we know it – and she will eventually spend the rest of her life trying to abolish the holiday.

Anna Jarvis never had any children of her own. However, when her own mother died in 1905, she became inspired to organize what is known as Mother’s Day. The holiday was founded not by a mother, but by a daughter paying tribute to her dead guardian. However, Jarvis objected to having the holiday officially signed by President Wilson; she wanted it to be a day where you’d go home to spend time with your mother and thank her for all that she did, stressing the “singular Mother’s,” rather than the “plural Mothers’.”

Unfortunately, Anna’s idea of the intimate Mother’s Day quickly became a commercial gold mine all about buying and giving of flowers, candies, and greeting cards; it was a movement that disturbed her. Deeply worried, Jarvis set and dedicated herself to returning Mother’s Day to its reverent roots. To list some of the things Jarvis did, she organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and even scolded First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for manipulating Mother’s Day to raise funds.

Despite Jarvis’ efforts, Mother’s Day continues to be an engine of consumerism. According to Hallmark Cards, about 133 million Mother’s Day cards are exchanged annually. In the United States, Mother’s Day ranks third in the number of card exchanges, with only Christmas and Valentine’s day in front. Following Christmas, it’s the second most popular holiday for giving gifts.

So on May 10th, 2015, spend some time with your mother rather than just buying her cards and gifts. Take a moment to think about Anna Jarvis’ views – quality of time over quantity of money.