It’s the second Sunday in May where mothers, motherhood, and maternal bonds et al., and their effect on family and society are calibrated in the United States.
The modern holiday was first celebrated in 1907, when Anna Jarvis held the first Mother's Day service at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Inspired by her own mother’s life, she sent 500 white carnations along to commemorate the occasion which, counterintuitively, would come to symbolize a commercial holiday.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution instructing all federal government officials to wear a white carnation in 1913, after which the U.S. Congress passed a law commemorating the day. Even U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order in 1914 declaring the second Sunday in May “a day for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war.”
Remembered for shaping and mobilizing public opinion, Woodrow Wilson spun Mother’s Day into a patriotic holiday by confusing civil service and public works with everyday acts of kindness.
Mother’s Work Clubs
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Commonwealth of Virginia was sharply divided by the political divisions between North and South. In 1862, the state broke in two where military engagement quickly ensued.
Ann Jarvis — the founder of the Mother’s Day Movements — had been active in public service long before the American Civil War. Measles, typhoid and diphtheria epidemics were rampant in the Appalachians during the mid-1800’s, and to take action and help her community combat childhood diseases Jarvis created “Mothers' Day Work Clubs” to improve health and sanitary conditions in the region.
The Mother’s Day Work Clubs’ sole and singular objective was to reduce children’s suffering and infant mortality via caregiving and education. For example, where mothers were effected by tuberculosis or other health problems, the Mother’s Day Work Clubs were actively raising money to buy medicine and hire caregivers. Mother’s Day Work Clubs actively canvassed and called upon households to educate new mothers and families about sanitation and health. The Mother’s Day Work Clubs were even activists; developing the very first program to inspect milk long before there were state requirements.
In the 1800s, the milk supply in the United States was regularly skimmed and diluted with water to meet the demand for commercial sales. However, consumers in urban areas couldn’t determine its quality because dyes, caramel, salt and additives portrayed a natural product. Even formaldehyde was regularly used to extend the shelf life of dairy products, and many commercial drugs prescribed by doctors were laden with alcohol and opium with no curative effect, even to infants. The work of muckraking journalists exposed the practices of the dairy industry triggering public interest and consumer protection laws enacted by Congress. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the precursor of the FDA. Jarvis was at the helm.
American Civil War
At the onset of the American Civil War, Mother’s Day Work Clubs expanded their mission to meet demand. In addition to advocating for children, Jarvis’ now five chapters throughout West Virginia were providing care to soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War.
When typhoid and measles broke out in the military camps, it was Jarvis and her Mother’s Day Work Clubs who nursed the suffering on both sides. Jarvis resolved to remain neutral, providing aid to both sides, and refused to support a division of the Methodist Church into a northern and southern branch. She offered prayer for enemy soldiers, when all others refused, and under her exegesis the Mother’s Day Work Clubs fed and clothed soldiers on both sides of the deadliest conflict in American history. The Charleston Gazette called Ann Jarvis “a trailblazer of the American Red Cross.”
Following the American Civil War, Jarvis, rightly, focused on children where she saw the future at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church. She served as superintendent of the Primary Sunday School Department for twenty-five years and fostered a lecture series and became a national figure on public health.
Jarvis’ efforts as a community organizer crescendo in “Mother's Friendship Day" which united the parent’s of soldiers from both sides of the American Civil War. Despite threats of violence, Jarvis successfully staged the first event in 1868 sharing a message of unity and reconciliation. The band played “Dixie” and “The Star Spangled Banner,” but parents from both the North and South united in "Auld Lang Syne.”
Mother’s Friendship Day
Ann Jarvis died on May 9, 1905, and on the first anniversary of her death, Anna, Jarvis’ daughter, met with friends to plan a memorial service for her mother. The first “official” Mother’s Day service was held at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia on May 10, 1908. Anna, engaged in a larger Mother’s Day event in Philadelphia, sent along 500 white carnations to the church. The telegram read;
Carnations are the white and pinks of humanity, whose petals neither fail nor drop in death, but it’s not their scent that gives them life, its devotion and their depth.
By the 1920s, the forces of commercialization had overwhelmed Jarvis’ message with a cottage industry of candies, printed cards, American flags and carnations. “A printed card means only you’re too lazy to write,” Jarvis once told Time Magazine.
For when Ann Jarvis said, “I hope and pray that someone, someday, will found a memorial Mother’s Day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life,” she didn't foresee a cottage industry of commercial gestures. She was the propounder of a sacred proposition.
For Jarvis, motherhood wasn’t about civics, public works or politics at all, but rather the spirit of reconciliation with which she works and serves them all.