American History

The Origin of Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a special day to millions of people in the United States. Not only is it one of the largest greeting card holidays of the year, it is also a time when families often get together to share their love of the mothers among them. At the very least, most mothers and women who are mother figures to others, are given phone calls, emails, and visits of appreciation. Presents and taking the mothers in question out for a meal are also common customs on this sweet day. But how did Mother’s Day get started? Did your ancestors celebrate it? This is what you need to know about Mother’s Day.

St. Andrew's Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia

St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia

The first American Mother’s Day was in 1908. It was celebrated when a woman named Anna Jarvis put on a memorial for her mother at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. This church is now the location of the International Mother’s Day Shrine. Jarvis actually began to campaign to make Mother’s Day a recognized United States holiday three years earlier in 1905, when her mother died. Jarvis’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, was a pacifist who tended wounded soldiers on both sides during the Civil War, making no distinction between Confederate or Union in her care or compassion. She also started the first Mother’s Day Work Club, which soon had branches in many states in the nation, to encourage the government and local communities to address issues of public health importance. Her daughter wanted to found a Mother’s Day holiday not only to honor her own mother, but to honor all mothers, as well as to continue the charity work her mother started. Jarvis often said mothers were the people who did more for their children than anyone in the world.

Though the United States Congress rejected Jarvis’s Mother’s Day proposal in 1908, Jarvis did not give up working to make her dream of a day to honor all mothers a reality. The only reason Congress cited for rejecting the first Mother’s Day proposal was that they would have to declare a Mother-in-Law’s Day, too. The statement was made half-jokingly, but was used to dismiss Jarvis’s proposal. Jarvis continued to lobby Congress and work to gain public support for a national Mother’s Day holiday. Instead of going through Congress, she went to the states. By 1911, every state in the nation observed Mother’s Day, with the first state being Jarvis’s home state of West Virginia. Noticing that the states were doing what the nation was not, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1914, to be held the second Sunday in May each year as a day to honor all mothers and mother figures in the country.

Anna Jarvis

Anna Jarvis

Jarvis was joyful that her dream became realized by a presidential proclamation and declaration. But, the holiday quickly became a commercialized one, and not a commemorative and contemplative one as she imagined. Her vision of Mother’s Day eventually became unrecognizable to her, and Jarvis became resentful of this commercialization of her dream. Hallmark Cards was already monopolizing heavily on the holiday by the early 1920’s, and other card companies soon jumped on the bandwagon of selling Mother’s Day cards. Jarvis always believed this focus on profit was a complete misinterpretation of her intention for Mother’s Day, which was to be a sentimental holiday, not a commercial one.

Because Mother’s Day took on a life of its own unrelated to her vision for it, Jarvis began to organize Mother’s Day boycotts. She also threatened to sue the companies profiting from her holiday. It was Jarvis’s preference that people honor their mothers on Mother’s Day by writing handwritten letters that talked about love and gratitude for all a person’s mother had done for them, and continued to do. She was even arrested for disturbing the peace by disrupting the American War Mothers’ Mother’s Day celebrations in 1925.

All Jarvis’s protests that her holiday was not being celebrated properly were to no avail. The commercialization of Mother’s Day continued. But behind it, there was the sentiment and love that Jarvis envisioned. The cards were sent out of love, as were the family get-togethers that often accompanied them. Though Mother’s Day didn’t become exactly what Jarvis wanted it to be, the original meaning of the holiday she created is still there.


Will Moneymaker

Will founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. Ask him about permission to republish his articles.

  • Morag Hughson

    I’m curious why Mother’s Day is on different dates on either side of the Atlantic, was hoping you’d mention that in this article.