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Did you ever wonder about the origin of Mother's Day?
Though the idea of setting aside a day to honor mothers might seem to have ancient roots, our observance of Mother's Day is not quite a century old. It originated from the efforts of a devoted daughter who believed that grown children, preoccupied with their own families, too often neglect their mothers.That daughter, Miss Anna Jarvis, a West Virginia schoolteacher, set out to rectify the neglect.

Born in 1864, Anna Jarvis attended school in Grafton, West Virginia. Her close ties with her mother made attending Mary Baldwin College, in Stanton, Virginia, difficult. But Anna was determined to acquire an education. Upon graduation, she returned to her hometown as a certified public school teacher.

The death of her father in 1902 compelled Anna and her mother to live with relatives in Philadelphia. Three years later, her mother died on May 9, leaving Anna grief-stricken. Though by every measure she had not been an exemplary daughter, she found herself consumed with guilt for all the things she had not done for her mother. For two years these feelings germinated, bearing the fruit of an idea in 1907. On the second Sunday in May, the anniversary of her mother’s death, Anna Jarvis invited a group of friends to her Philadelphia home. Her announced idea-for an annual nationwide celebration to be called Mother’s Day-met with unanimous support. She tested the idea on others. Mothers felt that such an act of recognition was long overdue. Every child concurred. No father dissented. A friend, John Wanamaker, America’s number one clothing merchant, offered financial backing. Early in the spring of 1908, Miss Jarvis wrote to the superintendent of Andrews Methodist Sunday School, in Grafton, where her mother had taught a weekly religion class for twenty years. She suggested that the local church would be the ideal location for a celebration in her mother’s honor.

By extension, all mothers present would receive recognition. So on May 10, 1908, the first Mother’s Day service was held in Grafton, West Virginia, attended by 407 children and their mothers. At the conclusion of that service, Miss Jarvis presented each mother and child with a flower: a carnation, her own mother’s favorite. It launched a Mother’s Day tradition.

To suggest that the idea of an annual Mother’s Day celebration met with immediate public acceptance is perhaps an understatement. Few proposed holidays have had so much nationwide support, so little special-interest-group dissension. The House of Representatives quickly passed a Mother’s Day resolution. However, resolution stalled in the Senate.

A determined Anna Jarvis then began what has been called one of the most successful one-person letter-writing campaigns in history. She contacted congressmen, governors, mayors, newspaper editors, ministers, and business leaders throughout the country, everyone of importance who would listen. Listen they did, responding with editorials, sermons, and political orations. Villages and towns, cities and states, began unofficial Mother’s Day observances. By 1914, to dissent on the Mother’s Day issue seemed not only cynical but un-American. Finally, the Senate approved the legislation, and on May 8, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things
by Charles Panati / Paperback - 480 pages Reissue edition (September 1989) / HarperCollins
Discover the fascinating stories behind the origins of over 500 everyday items, expressions and customs.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised April 30, 2007.
A determined daughter began what has been called one of the most successful one-person letter-writing campaigns in history to proclaim the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day.
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