The Secret History of Mother’s Day.

Ann Reeves (1832-1905) was one hell of a mother. She was born in western Virginia, married a merchant named Granville Reeves, bore 11-13 children[1] and lost all but four of them to childhood diseases. These deaths got her interested in maternal health and public sanitation. In the nature of reform movements of the time, most of her efforts concentrated on “voluntaristic” education directed at local mothers. She proved to be tireless. During the Civil War and afterward, Ann Reeves clung to a strictly non-partisan stance that offended partisans, but eventually won wide respect. In 1868 she sponsored a “Mothers Friendship Day” in Taylor County, West Virginia to bring together the veterans and their families of the two sides in the “recent unpleasantness.”

Other people shared the general notion of celebrating mothers, even if they did not follow the same exact course. In 1870, the suffragette Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) published a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” that called on the women of the world to unite for peace. Subsequently, she campaigned for 2 June to be celebrated as Mother’s Day.” Her efforts bore no fruit.[2]

Anna Reeves’ surviving children migrated to Philadelphia, where they prospered. Her daughter, Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) spent two years at what would later become Mary Baldwin College, then went to Philadelphia to join her brothers. An intelligent, determined woman like her mother, Anna became the advertising editor for an insurance company. Despite the physical distance between mother and daughter, they remained in close contact through the now-lost skill of written correspondence. When her husband died in 1902 Ann Jarvis moved to Philadelphia herself. She spent her last days in the City of Brotherly Love. She died there on 8 May 1905.[3]

In 1908, on the third anniversary of her mother’s death, Anna Jarvis began a campaign to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. She chose the second Sunday in May as the date because it was the day on which her mother had died. She chose the white carnation as the day’s symbol because ti had been her mother’s favorite flower. She lobbied church groups, businesses, and all levels of government to this end. Her first convert was John Wanamaker, the master of the great Philadelphia department store. Wanamaker held a service in his store’s auditorium to coincide with a service held by Jarvis in her home town of Grafton, West Virginia. Fifteen thousand people attended. Soon the West Virginia legislature got on board. Other states followed. In May 1913 Congress passed a resolution calling on all government officials to wear a white carnation to celebrate Mother’s Day. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day a national holiday.

Florists, candy-makers, and greeting-card publishers loved the new holiday.[4] (Later on, jewelers, restaurant owners, and spa-operators came to love it as well.) This appalled Anna Jarvis. She regarded greeting cards as a convenience for people too lazy to write a letter. She spent the rest of her life shoveling sand against the commercial tide. In 1948, just before her death, she was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace for publically protesting against the commercialization of Mother’s Day. Worn out and aging, she died in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on the day before Thanksgiving, 1948. She had never married, so Mother’s Day was her only child.

[1] Nineteenth Century Southern record-keeping being what it was.

[2] Even less than did her song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

[3] I am, by pure coincidence, writing this near Philadelphia on 8 May 2015.

[4] Later came Father’s Day and National Grandparent’s Day.

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