Past Times

Mother’s Day has a complicated history

Mrs. Sila Brown of Snow Hill was mother to the typical Tar Heel family, selected to represent North Carolina at the World’s Fair in New York in 1940.
Mrs. Sila Brown of Snow Hill was mother to the typical Tar Heel family, selected to represent North Carolina at the World’s Fair in New York in 1940. News & Observer file photo

During the days of World War II, Mother’s Day took on new meaning, as writer Dorothy Coble described in 1942.

There is a grim side to Mother’s Day this year, … and nobody knows it more than the mothers who are here this weekend to attend State College graduation exercises. They’ll make the same fuss as in years past over their sons’ caps and gowns and diplomas, and there’ll be the usual hustle and bustle over packing trunks and getting them strapped on automobiles for the trip home. Instead of the usual talk of new jobs, however, there’ll be talk of Army camps and Navy bases and of the part the graduates are soon to play in Uncle Sam’s war. The N&O May 10, 1942

Mother’s Day itself was only a few years old as those sons left for war. In 1958, on the 50th anniversary of the first formal Mother’s Day observance, Cynthia Lowry wrote about the origin of the holiday.

Mothers Day was entirely the idea of a militant, sharp-tongued and sentimental spinster of 44, Anna M. Jarvis. Grieving extravagantly over the death of her own mother three years before, she was determined to establish a national holiday honoring the nation’s mothers – particularly her own.

Paradoxically, the popular success of the idea turned Anna Jarvis into a bitter, eccentric recluse.…

To Anna Jarvis, … the nation’s merchants turned Mothers Day into a bonanza, and she spent her own modest fortune trying to keep the day within the religious and the idealistic bounds which she had set for it. As a result, when she died in 1948, she had been living on the charity of acquaintances in a sanitarium outside Philadelphia. She was 84, deaf, blind – and convinced her crusade was a failure.

Perhaps the germ of the idea came from Anna Jarvis’ mother. When the family lived in West Virginia at the end of the Civil War, Mrs. Jarvis was distressed at the way the conflict had split families. She organized a “Mothers’ Friendly Day,” inviting both Union and Confederate veterans to gather with their families in ceremonies… in an effort to heal the scars.…

On May 9, 1907 – the second anniversary of her mother’s death – Anna held memorial services in her own home. Then this devoted daughter was off on a single-minded, lifelong crusade for a national and international holiday.

She was a born crusader and, before she found the ideal cause, had campaigned for suffrage, temperance and had done some welfare work. But her new idea obsessed her to the exclusion of all else.

The first few years were happy, and success was easy beyond her dreams. She wrote to and buttonholed a legion – clergymen, officials, politicians, congressmen, educators, editors and even the White House.… In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first official Mothers Day.

For a while, Anna was in control. She chose the official floral emblem, the carnation. It was her mother’s favorite flower. Typically, however, she ignored the fact that carnations bloom outdoors in late summer, and was furious when, in the face of demand, florists raised the price of the greenhouse-forced flowers early in the year.

She ignored carnations then, and turned to celluloid badges, paying for them herself and distributing them to schools and churches.

Resolutely turning away from the fact that the public enjoyed giving gifts on Mothers Day, Miss Jarvis began to fight commercialization and tried to take on the jewelers, the florists, the confectioners and the greeting card people who, she felt, were sullying her project.

She incorporated herself as “The Mothers Day International Assn.” Although no one could ever find another member, she always spoke thereafter of “we” and firmly staked out the the second Sunday in May as the association’s own day.

In 1923 New York’s Gov. Alfred E. Smith, Sen. Royal S. Copeland and others planned a big Mothers Day celebration. Miss Jarvis, sensing some merchants’ interest in the project, threatened to bring suit on a claimed violation of her copyright. The New Yorkers called the whole thing off.

A few years later, she tangled with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had become associated with another mothers’ organization which Miss Jarvis considered a rival.…

As Mothers Day became bigger and more important, Miss Jarvis’ disappointment grew. Gradually she retreated from the world. She rarely left her home, her telephone number was unlisted. Her principal interests were her blind sister and tending her mother’s grave. The N&O May 11, 1958

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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