How Mother Got Her Day


Embodying the rhetoric of the earlier House resolution, this joint resolution authorized and requested the President to call upon Americans to display the flag on the second Sunday in May as a “public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” The measure was enacted by unanimous consent on May 8,1914. Anna watched its passage from the gallery. The Senate ratified it, and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan issued the proclamation for President Wilson. House Speaker William “Champ” Clark and the President sent Anna the pens they had used to sign the document.

The legislative proclamation established, of course, a monument to an idealized Anna Reeves Jarvis. Driven by affection and grief, but also—one suspects—by some need to deny her ambivalence toward her real mother, Anna had provided a day on which all children could honor their mothers. Anna’s political victory encouraged others to do what she had done, to turn aside unpleasant memories and feelings about one’s mother in order to celebrate the ideal. Perhaps on a deep psychological level, Mother’s Day provided a symbolic way to mourn the universal childhood separation from the maternal figure.

Certainly feelings of separation and reunion in death colored John Wanamaker’s support of Mother’s Day. He presented the following card to all patrons of his stores on Mother’s Day, 1914: “ MOTHER MOST BELOVED: The years roll on that bring me nearer to you. But you have never seemed very far away.

“The wheels of time have left their tracks on all about us, but your dear face has remained just the same.

“What you said to us, and the memories of what you did for us, come back and back to your children in the silence of the day, and never is there a sickness or trial, nor a joy, that you are not present in some measure.

“More than a thousand times since you journeyed on we have said, ‘If only mother were here’ as of old, that we might say the word and do the thing we postponed or forgot. [Signed] John Wanamaker.”

That Anna had been repressing her own anger toward her mother, or at the very least needed to keep her idealized image of her mother inviolate, became clearer as the day became widely observed. Anna became protective of “her” day—as grief-stricken individuals sometimes are of their mourning when others do not respect it. She liked it when forty-two thousand soldiers at Camp Sherman, Ohio, stood at attention and said the Lord’s Prayer in honor of their mothers, but the fact that florists profited from her day outraged her. When the price of carnations rose to a dollar apiece, she developed an inexpensive Celluloid button as a substitute. People bought flowers anyway, and Anna scathingly attacked “infringers,” “detractors,” and “profiteers.”

Although she worked alone, she referred to “Mother’s Day, Inc.,” with its copyrighted trademark, as “we.” “ HELP US, ” she pleaded in typewritten handbills, “to root out the charity grafters of high-sounding names.” When New York governor Alfred E. Smith announced plans for a huge Mother’s Day meeting for New York City in 1923, Anna threatened to sue, charging infringement of copyright. She submerged her own personality in building the memorial to her mother. When a Grafton friend asked her for her favorite picture, she wrote, “You ask me to send you a picture I like best. I shall send you my mother’s.”

Anna saved everything related to her Mother’s Day campaign. When her three-story, red-brick home at 2031 North Twelfth eventually could no longer house the tons of cards, clippings, letters, and pamphlets, she purchased the house next door with money from Claude’s estate.

Amid the clutter, she hammered out typewritten manifestoes and letters—many of which were “for our files” and never sent. On April 13,1927, she wrote two long notes “for future use” against the Adam Geible Music Company of Philadelphia: “There is perhaps not a more contemptible, dishonored name in your line of business, than that of INFRINGER . … Unable to make a living as men,” she alleged, the Geibels resorted to infringing the copyright of a grieving and now elderly woman.

Sometime before Anna’s mother died, the Indianapolis Aerie No. 211 of the Fraternal Order of Eagles had held a celebration of motherhood, organized by Frank E. Hering, a man who was later convicted of conspiracy in connection with a charity lottery. Hering now claimed to be the Father of Mother’s Day. The American War Mothers awarded him their Victory Medal in 1929, and the Eagles Convention of August, 1932, also honored him for his supposed accomplishment. The War Mothers dared sell carnations on Anna’s day. Once, Philadelphia police had to arrest Anna for disturbing the peace as she attempted to stop War Mothers’ sales.