The non-mother who started Mother’s Day

Championed by Anna Jarvis, the holiday has a surprising history.

May 10, 2018, 4:00 AM

— -- Ironically, the founder of Mother’s Day was not a mother herself. Anna Jarvis created the holiday to honor her late mother, Ann.

Ann Jarvis was a dedicated community organizer and philanthropist. According to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, she "founded Mothers' Day Work Clubs in five cities in West Virginia to improve sanitary and health conditions." The clubs hired women to help families with sick mothers and created programs that tested the quality of milk (the FDA did not exist back then). During the Civil War, Ann’s clubs provided aid to injured soldiers.

According to Katharine Lane Antolini's book, "Memorializing motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the struggle for control of Mother's Day," Anne once said, "[I] hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day [sic] commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it."

Two years after Ann’s death on May 12, 1907, Anna handed out 500 white carnations to all the mothers at Anna’s church, St. Andrew’s Church in Grafton, West Virginia. The white carnation became the official flower of Mother’s Day, according to an article in The Atlantic Constitution from May 7, 1912. After years of lobbying, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day a national holiday that would be celebrated on the second Sunday of every May.

However, by the 1920s, florists and confectioners had capitalized on the holiday much to its founder’s dismay. Anna spent the rest of her life fighting the commercialization of Mother’s Day. In 1925, she was arrested for disturbing the peace at a confectioner’s convention in Philadelphia, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Anna died at age 84, blind and penniless, according to the Daily Boston Globe. Her birthplace in Grafton, West Virginia, has been turned into a museum.

(Editor's note: This article was originally published in May 2017.)

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