National Geographic News
Photo of Anna Jarvis.

Anna Jarvis was the driving force behind the first Mother's Day observances in 1908.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BETTMANN, CORBIS

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic

Updated May 8, 2014

As Mother's Day turns 100 this year, it's known mostly as a time for brunches, gifts, cards, and general outpourings of love and appreciation.

But the holiday has more somber roots: It was founded for mourning women to remember fallen soldiers and work for peace. And when the holiday went commercial, its greatest champion, Anna Jarvis, gave everything to fight it, dying penniless and broken in a sanitarium.

It all started in the 1850s, when West Virginia women's organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis—Anna's mother—held Mother's Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination, according to historian Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College. The groups also tended wounded soldiers from both sides during the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865.

In the postwar years Jarvis and other women organized Mother's Friendship Day picnics and other events as pacifist strategies to unite former foes. Julia Ward Howe, for one—best known as the composer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"—issued a widely read "Mother's Day Proclamation" in 1870, calling for women to take an active political role in promoting peace.

Around the same time, Jarvis had initiated a Mother's Friendship Day for Union and Confederate loyalists across her state. But it was her daughter Anna who was most responsible for what we call Mother's Day—and who would spend most of her later life fighting what it had become.

"Mother's Day," Not "Mothers' Day"

Anna Jarvis never had children of her own, but the 1905 death of her own mother inspired her to organize the first Mother's Day observances in 1908.

On May 10 of that year, families gathered at events in Jarvis's hometown of Grafton, West Virginia—at a church now renamed the International Mother's Day Shrine—as well as in Philadelphia, where Jarvis lived at the time, and in several other cities.

Largely through Jarvis's efforts, Mother's Day came to be observed in a growing number of cities and states until U.S. President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May in 1914 for the holiday. (See pictures of animal mothers and babies.)

"For Jarvis it was a day where you'd go home to spend time with your mother and thank her for all that she did," West Virginia Wesleyan's Antolini, who wrote "Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Defense of Her Mother's Day" as her Ph.D. dissertation, said in a previous interview.

"It wasn't to celebrate all mothers. It was to celebrate the best mother you've ever known—your mother—as a son or a daughter." That's why Jarvis stressed the singular "Mother's Day," rather than the plural "Mothers' Day," Antolini explained.

But Jarvis's success soon turned to failure, at least in her own eyes.

Storming Mother's Day

Anna Jarvis's idea of an intimate Mother's Day quickly became a commercial gold mine centering on the buying and giving of flowers, candies, and greeting cards—a development that deeply disturbed Jarvis. She set about dedicating herself and her sizable inheritance to returning Mother's Day to its reverent roots. (See National Geographic's pictures of motherly love.)

Jarvis incorporated herself as the Mother's Day International Association and tried to retain some control of the holiday. She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and even attacked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother's Day to raise funds for charities.

"In 1923 she crashed a convention of confectioners in Philadelphia," Antolini said.

A similar protest followed two years later. "The American War Mothers, which still exists, used Mother's Day for fund-raising and sold carnations every year," Antolini said. "Anna resented that, so she crashed their 1925 convention in Philadelphia and was actually arrested for disturbing the peace."

Jarvis's fervent attempts to reform Mother's Day continued until at least the early 1940s. In 1948 she died at 84 in Philadelphia's Marshall Square Sanitarium.

"This woman, who died penniless in a sanitarium in a state of dementia, was a woman who could have profited from Mother's Day if she wanted to," Antolini said.

"But she railed against those who did, and it cost her everything, financially and physically."

Mother's Day Gifts Today: Brunch, Bouquets, Bling

Today, of course, Mother's Day continues to roll on as an engine of consumerism.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend an average of $162.94 on mom this year, down from a survey high of $168.94 last year. Total spending is expected to reach $19.9 billion. The U.S. National Restaurant Association reports that Mother's Day is the year's most popular holiday for dining out.

As for Mother's Day being a hallmark holiday, there's no denying it, strictly speaking.

Hallmark Cards itself, which sold its first Mother's Day cards in the early 1920s, reports that Mother's Day is the number three holiday for card exchange in the United States, behind Christmas and Valentine's Day—another apparent affront to the memory of the mother of Mother's Day.

About 133 million Mother's Day cards are exchanged annually, according to Hallmark. After Christmas, it's the second most popular holiday for giving gifts. (See "Father's Day at 100: How It Began, Why Dad Gets Fewer Gifts.")

Mother's Day Gone Global

The holiday Anna Jarvis launched has spread around much of the world, though it's celebrated with varying enthusiasm, in various ways, and on various days—though more often than not on the second Sunday in May.

In much of the Arab world, Mother's Day is on March 21, which happens to loosely coincide with the start of spring. In Panama the day is celebrated on December 8, when the Catholic Church honors perhaps the most famous of mothers, the Virgin Mary. In Thailand mothers are honored on August 12, the birthday of Queen Sirikit, who has reigned since 1956 and is considered by many to be a mother to all Thais.

Britain's centuries-old Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday of the Christian period of Lent, began as a spring Sunday designated for people to visit their area's main cathedral, or mother church, rather than their local parish.

Mothering Sunday church travel led to family reunions, which in turn led to Britain's version of Mother's Day.

115 comments
Ryan de la Cruz
Ryan de la Cruz

Thanks to Miss Anna Jarvis for without her, we won't have a special day to honor and celebrate the love of a mother. Truly, the love of a mother is the best love a child will ever get next from God of course. I have a blog that tells about mothers, their stories and their life. Check www.iloveyoumomforever.com

SherylnSteve Fanning
SherylnSteve Fanning

Where did this story come from?  I have always been told and been under the impression that Mothers day was created by the Eagles?  I even heard a story on the radio about how they were known by a different name at first but now were the Fraternal Order of Eagles???  How come I have never heard of this woman?  and where did the Eagles story come from?  inquiring minds want to know.....

Penny Dove
Penny Dove

This poor woman got her priorities out of whack! She should have followed in her mothers footsteps and become a true philanthropist. I can't think of anything more trivial than trying to fix Mothers Day! Much like Christmas which  has become the number one commercial holiday, Mother's Day became personal to who ever has their own interpretation of how to celebrate such occasions.

Christopher L.
Christopher L.

um..West Virginia in the 1850"s ??..West Virginia didn't become a state until 1863....

Brian Muntz
Brian Muntz

Mother's day is about the women. Many women are not appreciated for being a mom. They are used as a breeding cow, cloak in darkness, made to feel the lesser of the human race and so on. What's amazing is that we use religion to justify our treatment of women god or bad. When people ran with the idea to show appreciation for what women do as mothers it was quickly commercialized. The greed of the almighty dollar took over at the expenses of how we personally feel about our moms. Cashing in on making us feel we are obligated. Set a president for moms to expect some form of gifts to justify our feelings.  Mother's day is full of mixed emotions for me. However, I do respect that they are my emotions, my opinions and feelings. My mom has passed away. I can't tell her no more how I feel about her. My daughters are moms and I do tell them I appreciate them for what they do as moms. I reflect with them all moms around the world. From great ones to bad ones. From the free and the depressed. From the lucky ones to the oppressed. I don't buy flowers or cards. I tell them to their faces about I feel about moms. This is my personal feeling I am willing to share. Take or leave it, it really doesn't matter because it won't change on how I feel.  Mom's are people that have lost husbands and children in conflict and war. They are special. No mother should bear the pain of labour and loss. Mothers have been failed to be protected by our society and that truly is a crime. They way i feel about moms is not to be displayed on what I can afford to buy but rather on what I can say.  Not all mothers deserve credit on mother's day as they have failed at the basic needs of life. I reserve my pat on the backs for mothers that truly deserve it. Especially those who are oppressed from being recognized as an equal and unique species to the human race.  If you want to buy your mother gifts, flowers, brunches or whatever, that is your decision to do so. Just remember that gifts can not replace the words you speak from your heart. Face to face. The most expensive gift I can give is a hug that is truthful and has meaning. It costs me the recognition that other people such as mothers deserve the attention rather than myself. I give these hugs freely, openly and with true emotions and appreciation. I do it without any expectations of getting anything in return. Don't get sucked into that spending money truly shows your love and emotions or goodwill. Thats fake. Share your heart; that is the biggest gift you can give. 


MJ Fowler
MJ Fowler

I was interested to see that there was no mention of the only tradition I ever heard from both my father (1901-1976) and my grandfather (1860-1957) — that on Mother's Day you wore a white carnation if your mother had died and a pink one if she was still alive... or possibly vice-versa; I don't remember for sure.


But in the 1950s they both were very clear that there didn't used to be what was even then considered commercial hoopla... and that was before the word "brunch" came into the vocabulary ;-)  We lived on the North Shore of Boston, and although my parents credited Anna Jarvis as the originator, I don't remember ever hearing about a connection to the peace movement; perhaps it was regional? 

As a kid in the 50s we did buy cards, or made them in school,  but that was about all. In the afternoon we all gathered at my grandmother's to celebrate her, our mothers and aunts.  Always a lovely day, with family together... but not in restaurants.  ;-)

Shirley Smith
Shirley Smith

Kelli Wright, I thought you would like this. Remember when you told me all about Anna Jarvis when you were little? I'm going to send this to Ron Wolfe too. He might find this interesting.

Melody Lanzatella
Melody Lanzatella

That is stupid! What difference does it make as long as we are saying thank you to mom?!

Eric Severson
Eric Severson

This puts Mother's Day in the same category as the way Christmas is now celebrated in my book: instead of buying junk at the store, we should remember the deeper meaning of the holiday.  Working to end war sounds more worthy than buying flowers and cards, just like "Peace on Earth, good will toward men" means more to me than opening presents

Isaac Shanfield
Isaac Shanfield

Very interesting story from National Geographic on the history of Mother's Day!!

Ehia Akhabue
Ehia Akhabue

I read through and it was very much interesting.

Lisa Williams
Lisa Williams

Bro Ron shared this story with us in the morning service and I wanted to know more. This was a very interesting read!

Christine Matthews
Christine Matthews

Very interesting. But how would the original Mother's Day be celebrated today since those issues are resolved today in the the USA.  I am glad that we celebrate it the way we do, even if people think that it is so commercialized today.  

Miranda Carbone
Miranda Carbone

I only read a small part of this in my paper this morning and found it very interesting

Blanche Yamba
Blanche Yamba

I didn't know this. Although I think there is nothing wrong with how we celebrate the occasion and in showing our deep appreciation to all mothers especially our own mother, it is important that we understand what we are celebrating of. And now that I know, please allow me to share this. Just like the "International Women's Day on March 8" has its historical roots of women oppression, Mother's Day is... "But the holiday has more somber roots: It was founded for mourning women to remember fallen soldiers and work for peace. And when the holiday went commercial, its greatest champion..."

Jean Smith
Jean Smith

Mothers are the ultimate peacemakers.  They are the foundation of civilization.

Roberta Taylor
Roberta Taylor

It is extremely disappointing that we have turned all the holidays (holy days) into commercialized events.

Angela Wilson
Angela Wilson

"This woman, who died penniless in a sanitarium in a state of dementia, was a woman who could have profited from Mother's Day if she wanted to," Antolini said.

"But she railed against those who did, and it cost her everything, financially and physically."

Lawrence Klein
Lawrence Klein

Happy Mother’s Day, we all share,

That source of life, those that care,

For us since conception, nurturing with love,

The meaning of life, the source from above,

From umbilical nourishment, to the breast,

Mothers are the source of our feast. The best

source of food and culture, whatever the spice,

Curry, Coriander, or Chili on Rice,

Attention to your Kids needs is always the one,

motivation, since Adam and Eve put a bun

In the Oven – as those British always refer,

To Pregnancy, since Shakespeare could infer,

To the wonder of Procreation, in a nourishing twist,

Without Mothers the human race just wouldn’t exist!

Happy Mother’s Day!


Copyright 2013 Lawrence Klein

p. banman
p. banman

Interesting comments....................history is very interesting to know how customs began. 


if children honor parents only on calendar days set aside for this (mothers on mother's day and fathers on father's day), it's an obligation but IF they honor parents just because on any day.......................then its LOVE!!!  Blessings to all mothers and fathers out there!

Rocio Gomez-Tagle
Rocio Gomez-Tagle

Tal vez les interese saber el origen del Mother´s Day y no Mothers Day

Maria Siddiqui
Maria Siddiqui

This is the curse of commercialism; every relation has become a matter to cash. My mom's happiness is more of a business opportunity for many. On one side, it's good, but somehow it has confined our expression of love for our parents to one or two days in a year n that's saddening.


Deborah Kettler
Deborah Kettler

Thanks to all the mothers who fought for women's rights and health and lit candles in the darkness.

Alice Rice
Alice Rice

Not surprising, our society has commercialized everything 

ALAN WHITAKER
ALAN WHITAKER

"Mother's Day Gone Global" is surely a hugely overstated. Even the following text states quite clearly that a similar name has been used in Britain, probably since long before The USA came into existence.

Despite the above, perhaps less than honest interpretation of who used the idea of a day dedicated to Mothers - in all the possible meanings of such a title. Most importantly, I hope that your text will be passed to some of the purveyors of "Mother's Day" cards that appear for sale throughout Britain in the run-up to the fourth Sunday in Lent. (This particular Sunday, known also a "Refreshment Sunday" in years gone by. On "Refreshment Sunday, the forty-day Christian period of fasting known as Lent could be broken to some extent, and in addition, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, servants were allowed one day off to travel home to spend time with their mothers)

For many years now, the greeting card retailer's buyers seem to have bought-in huge numbers of "Mother's Day"cards - In some cases to the extent of omitting any real "Mothering Sunday" cards completely from shelves. 

I was quite pleased this year to find that the UK cut-price greeting card retailer "The Card Factory" had quite a large selection of "Mothering Sunday" cards, some of which were quite obviously Christian-oriented, but there were others, too, with little or no suggestion of the history of the day's name.

Despite all of the criticism above, I do thank Heaven for your taking the trouble to articulate the difference between the two celebrations, and that they really do refer to two, quite different days, created for two, quite different reasons - even if the ultimate result is pretty much the same. 

Perhaps you might have made the date of "Mother's Day," and the fact that it does not fall in early Spring, but early Summer - (if I remember correctly in mid-June?). So thank you for your explanation of why "Mother's Day" and "Mothering Sunday" do not have a common origin. 

I really would not wish to seem to be triumphalist, (or too pedantic), over this, but surely it must be blatantly obvious that "Mothering Sunday" is not Britain's version of "Mother's Day" - not by any stretch of the imagination. Surely the truth has to be nearer to "Mother's Day" being an American "version" of "Mothering Sunday". Surely any similarity is entirely due to the two names appear to be quite similar. 

Alan Whitaker

Oh yes, I believe that it is now quite common for the children present to make and then distribute small posies of spring flowers to each and every woman present in Church of England, (Episcopal), congregations present at morning services on "Mothering Sunday". As a mere male, it seems to me that this small gift is generally warmly welcomed in the four C of E churches where I have worshipped since coming home from a couple of years in the US. 





Nancy Mac
Nancy Mac

My mother was evil and almost killed me when I was very young. So no, I do not honor her on this day. I also worked in a flower shop for 20 years and grew to hate Mother's Day. However when I had my own daughter I tried to be the best mother I could. I think I succeeded. My daughter took me to see the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit in SF and lunch yesterday (Bucket list BTW). But her best gift to me was graduating next week from the top university in the country.  I pat myself on the back every day...

Cathey Thomas
Cathey Thomas

@SherylnSteve FanningThe real "story" of Mother's Day is actually pretty well known among actual "inquiring minds". Obviously there's no way to guess why you've never heard of her, but I for one have always known about Anna Jarvis. 

Anyway, the Fraternal Order of Eagles merely started PROMOTING it as a National Holiday on February 7, 1904, about 50 years after it actually started.

Brian Lee
Brian Lee

@Dustin Webber  Yeah it says we are pioneers and many other countries followed our celebration of this holiday. 

Sabrina Messenger
Sabrina Messenger

@Eric Severson Why does it have to be either/or? In most cases, presents are purchased with the best intentions in mind. There's nothing inherently evil with gifts or gift giving. You can still work to end war but one shouldn't use activism or philanthropy as an excuse for being parsimonious

Jason Kolakowski
Jason Kolakowski

@Alice Rice  "Commercialized"? You mean, that because it's Mother's Day, and you want to buy your Mom a card or some flowers, someone meets that demand by selling you a card or flowers? Oh, the horror!

Sabrina Messenger
Sabrina Messenger

@Nancy Mac Have you considered psychotherapy to deal with your issues? I mean this in all seriousness. If you allow things to embitter your outlook on life, you could very easily wind up like Anna Jarvis.

Holly Smith
Holly Smith

@Nancy Mac  You seem bitter and selfish. Your daughter accomplished what she did probably because of who you are and those are her accomplishments, not yours, in an effort to not become who her mother is, or grandmother for that matter.

Share

Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »