May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Mother’s Day on May 10. The idea of setting aside a day each year to honor the mothers of a nation may be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but the American holiday owes its origins almost entirely to the efforts of one woman, Anna M. Jarvis.
Jarvis’s mother had spent almost thirty years trying to organize an annual memorial to mothers; upon her death in 1905 her daughter undertook this mission with inspired tenacity, organizing services in her native West Virginia and writing thousands of letters to public officials across the country.
The governor of North Dakota issued the first Mother’s Day proclamation in 1908, and within three years every other state had done the same. President Wilson’s proclamation made the second Sunday in May, the anniversary of the death of Anna Jarvis’s mother, a national holiday in “expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”
Anna Jarvis had seen her dream fulfilled, but she was soon disillusioned by America’s enthusiasm for her holiday. She would spend most of the rest of her life fighting the inevitable influence of commercialism upon the holiday she had established. She incorporated Mother’s Day and sued florists and confectioners who sought to profit from the holiday, a quixotic gesture at best. By 1948 she was penniless, blind, and nearly deaf, depending upon public support. The mother of Mother’s Day died that year in a sanitarium near Philadelphia, embittered at a world she believed had corrupted the celebration of motherhood.