Call Your Mother

When you think of Mother’s Day, you probably think of cards, flowers, or candy for the woman who gave you life.

But did you know those things are the exact opposite of what the creator of Mother’s Day meant for the day?

In the United States, our modern day “Mother’s Day” got its start with an anti-war activist by the name of Anna Jarvis. In the years before the Civil War, Jarvis started “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to properly care for their children and raise awareness about public health and other social issues. During the war, she worked as a peace activist, caring for wounded soldiers on both sides of the conflict and advocating for a peaceful resolution to the war. When hostilities finally ceased in 1865, Anna returned to her “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs,” with a new goal of promoting reconciliation between mothers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Witnessing firsthand the hardships and sacrifices of mothers throughout the country in times of both war and peace, and motivated by her own mother’s passing in 1905, Jarvis began campaigning for the creation of a national holiday to honor mothers. Spurred on by support from other women across the country, such as suffragette Julia Ward Howe who wrote a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” urging women to unite for the cause of world peace; and Juliet Calhoun Blakely, an activist who inspired a local Mother’s Day in Albion, Michigan, in the 1870s, Jarvis secured financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker. In May 1908, she organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia.

It was a rousing success and quickly gained steam. In the following years, Mother’s Day celebrations began popping up all over the country and, thanks in no small part to a persistent and dedicated letter campaign from Jarvis herself, Congress officially adopted Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1914.

Little did she know the behemoth she had unleashed.

Jarvis had originally conceived of Mother’s Day as a day of personal celebration between mothers and families. After all, is there any more personal relationship than one between a mother and her children? She encouraged people to spend the day with their mothers, attending church services or sharing a meal. If distance was an obstacle, hand-written letters could be sent. But once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, it wasn’t long before the capitalist zeal seized hold.

By 1920, only six years after achieving her goal, Jarvis denounced the holiday as overly commercialized and urged people to stop buying Mother’s Day flowers, cards and candies. The day had become perverted; the focus was no longer on mothers but on profits. Mass-produced gifts had replaced sentimentality.

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world,” she wrote. “And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”

Jarvis organized Mother’s Day boycotts, filing lawsuits against those making money from the day, and protesting at a candy makers’ convention in 1923 and a meeting of the American War Mothers in 1925, where she was arrested for disturbing the peace. She even went as far as attempting to lobby the federal government to remove the holiday from the American calendar, to no avail.

Ironically, Jarvis remained unmarried and childless her entire life, and she died in a sanitarium in 1948, her medical bills paid for by the floral and greeting card companies she detested.

So…perhaps a visit or a phone call to your mother instead this year?

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