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How Mother Got Her Day

July 2024
17min read

Alone among our national holidays, Mother’s Day commemorates a death. Thanks to the tireless, even obsessive, labors of Anna Jarvis of West Virginia, we honor all our mothers on the second Sunday in May, the anniversary of her own mother’s death in 1905.

Anna’s morbid obsession is not surprising; death and sorrow tragically affected her relationship with her mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis, right from the start. The eighth of eleven children, she was named for a sister who had died before her birth. Only three of her siblings reached adulthood: Josiah, Claude, and Elsinore, known as Lillie, whom scarlet fever left all but blind.

As the only physically sound daughter of five, Anna became distinctly special in her mother’s eyes. A friend wrote that the two of them grew to love “each other with a love which was more than love.”

Anna felt differently toward her father, Granville, who ran a hotel and sold feed in the small town of Graf ton. He had, she recalled, “a quick natural temper, and he never overcame it, but he ruled it.” She and Granville exchanged some tart letters over the years. She remembered him to be “selfreliant but not self-assertive, modest, natural, reserved—always quiet and retiring.” “My father,” (Anna always capitalized “mother” but never “father”) she noted, “was 10 years my Mother’s senior, and the difference in years was most marked throughout their married life over 52 years.”

Mrs. Jarvis was as outgoing as Granville was reserved. Perhaps in compensation for her own losses, she became a “mother” to the communities in which she lived. Before the Civil War, she organized local women to fight the epidemic diseases that had stricken some of her children. Later, she convened a “Mother’s Friendship Day” social gathering at which she advocated the power of motherhood to heal the war’s wounds and to reduce the Union-Confederate rivalries that many West Virginia mountaineers still harbored during Reconstruction.

As a Sunday-school teacher and as head of the Andrews Methodist Church infant department in Grafton, West Virginia, Mrs. Jarvis lectured adults and children on “Great Mothers of the World.” She seemed saintly and “Christian” to the townspeople. “I am afraid,” wrote a friend after her death, “that none of us will ever be as good as she was.”

Anna knew her better, however, knew that her mother’s public service, in part at least, masked an attempt to “hide her great suffering and fears.” Anna described her mother as “highly nervous” and her mother’s life as one of “care, anxiety, illness, sorrow, and self-sacrifice.” Her mother, wrote Anna, “never ceased to grieve” over the deaths of her own brother and parents, and, though she loved her mother deeply, Anna must also have resented being trapped in her web of grief. A worrier like her mother, Anna did not develop her mother’s graciousness, but she matured to be a tall, attractive, red-haired woman. She graduated from the Grafton public schools in 1881 and “finished” at Augusta Female Academy in Staunton, Virginia, some 150 miles away. After two years of English, mental and moral philosophy, Latin, German, and math, Anna, now nineteen, returned home to teach school.

Like her mother, Anna conducted Sunday school; she also played the organ at services. An acquaintance wrote that those who knew her gave “testimony to her high character and noble qualities of head and heart.” Anna was, he noted, “earnest, conscientious, attentive, and faithful in the discharge of duty.” Her modesty, he concluded, “is equaled only by her merit.”


Anna’s brothers struck out on their own, but she stayed home with her parents. They lived well enough until 1887, when a huge fire burned nearly all Grafton’s commercial buildings. Thereafter, Granville’s fortunes declined.

When Anna was twenty-seven, her uncle, Dr. James E. Reeves, urged her to come to work as a secretary or bank clerk in Chattanooga. His town, he boasted, was “more than ten times the size of Grafton” and would give her a chance to begin a “new life—one worth living.”

Anna’s mother balked. James pleaded with his sister that Anna would “find her proper and high level, and will at once strike 50 years ahead of Grafton.” But mother tearfully resisted losing Anna. James responded: ”… please dry up ; and send your child off on her triumphal march with gladness—not in sorrow and tears.” Anna stayed home with mother.

The next year, however, Anna was permitted to join her brother Claude, a successful businessman in Philadelphia. Although expecting “to return home at any time,” she secured a position as a writer in the advertising department of Philadelphia’s Fidelity Mutual Life Association. Her brother’s connections and wealth gave her an entrée into Philadelphia society.

Mrs. Jarvis kept house in Grafton for Lillie and for Granville, who now had taken to drink. Despite her poor eyesight, Lillie had struggled through Grafton High School. She worked part time, played the piano, and composed some music and poetry. At times she expressed grudging admiration for her sister. Of a paper Anna had prepared for an insurance convention, Lillie wrote: “It surprises me that anyone bearing our name is capable of rendering a production so fine. I almost feel like asking you if you really did compose it. Had I have read the same article in a newspaper or book, not even knowing its author, I think it would have commanded my interest and held it so that I would have been eager to read on to the end.”

But Lillie also despised Anna for monopolizing their mother’s love. In 1900 she complained that “Over the past five years it has been your aim to render me virtually Motherless. … You [are] the cause of my sickness. … Nothing would help and encourage me like your death, for you are the one barrier between me and all I deserve.”

“I did not suppose,” she wrote in another letter, “anyone gave me more than a passing thought at Easter. I suppose you read in the papers where that leper in the hospital begged them to give him poison instead of leaving him in solitude. It would be just as reasonable for me to do the same, for I am as much a lone stranger as if I were spending my first week in Chicago. My heart aches every hour. …”

In the face of Lillie’s attacks, Anna urged her mother ”… to love her more than any of us, and you know I have never tried to influence you against her. I would never think of such a thing, for I know you have love enough for us all to have our share. Give her the best of all and everything, for she has so little, and can enjoy so much less. I wish she would let me be kind to her and do for her, but she will not.” Granville died on New Year’s Eve, 1902. He had been an invalid for five years and Mother Jarvis convinced both Claude and Anna that she had expended her “vitality” in caring for him. Neither Anna nor her mother preserved any record of his funeral for the family papers.


Turn-of-the-century songs like these, all of them in dead earnest, had such a cumulative emetic effect that by 1919 two sated lyricists produced a spiky little parody of the genre:

Homeward to their mother, two working men did come, Weary with their honest toil and lighted up with rum. Supper was not ready. One aim’d a brutal blow, When the blue-eyed baby stopped them, saying, “Brothers, don’t do so.”

Chorus: Don’t swat yer mother, boys, just ‘cause she ‘s old! Don’t mop the floor with her face Think how her love is a treasure of gold, Shining thro’ shame and disgrace. Don’t put the rocking-chair next to her eye, Don’t bounce the lamp off her bean! Angels are watching you up in the sky, Don’t swat yer mother, it’s mean!”


Mrs. Jarvis maintained the home in Grafton until 1904, when she moved in with her son Claude. She already was suffering from the dropsy that soon would kill her. By early May, 1905, she was dying. The children gathered. Her eldest, Dr. Josiah Jarvis, attempted to assist the Philadelphia doctors Claude and Anna had summoned.

The night before she died, Mrs. Jarvis, who had seen so many of her children die, had a dream of “Jesus of Nazareth passing by on the other side of the street, with a whole lot of little children. I asked the nurse to help me to the window to see them.” That night she crossed the street and joined her children.

“What a loving privilege it was,” Anna wrote in a minutely detailed typescript account of her mother’s last days, “for my precious Mother’s eldest daughter to perform the last, loving service to her body. There was no emaciation; her repose was that of a peaceful sleep; her pure, sweet form [that] of a child. Her glory seemed to be in death, which [she] had accepted as a reward and beautiful promise; it all seemed victory and majesty, and triumph.”

“This noble Mother’s face,” she went on, “was not a strange one in heaven, for there were the father and mother, the brothers and sister, the husband and seven little children, and old dear friends who were awaiting her coming with eagerness and joy. What a day of rejoicing and happy reunions it must have been. …”

Mixed in among Anna’s tributes to her mother were hints of her own feelings of guilt. She blamed herself for not allowing her mother to speak of dying and for not selecting the right doctors: had the main physician been “as thoroughly acquainted with his patient’s symptoms as the nurse had shown herself to be,” Anna wrote, her mother might have lived on. The doctor, she thought, refused to be removed “for he was determined to hold on to the case for the last dollar that was in it for him. …”

Anna seemed unable to let her mother go. In replies to condolence letters, she sent her mother’s picture. In the notes she received, she marked phrases eulogizing her mother’s “sweet spirit,” “noble Christian life,” “cheery face,” or “gentle, kindly way.” Beneath a portrait of her mother, Anna placed a bowl filled with China roses, and she put palm leaves, from the funeral, in an urn as a further memorial.

Her grief persisted. Friends wrote her not to “worry so much” over her mother’s death. “Cheer up now,” one suggested, as the first anniversary approached, and “do not look on the dark side anymore.” Another wrote, “for you who have lost so noble a Mother we have the warmest sympathy and hope that God in his good time will heal your wounds and fill you with his Peace.”

But peace would not come. Her obsessive grieving was noticed by her fellow workers; her mother’s death, an associate noted, brought a “great change in Miss Jarvis.”

In April, 1906, a cousin suggested, “Cannot you, dear Anna, take up some of your Mother’s life work, and carry it on for her? It seems to me that in that way, you might find solace and comfort, and it would please her so. … You have been blessed in having such a devoted, loving and noble Christian mother, and I feel on that account, much is expected of you. We all have our heartaches and trials, and it is best we should. Let us make them blessings.”

This suggestion apparently opened a way for Anna to try to cope with her unconscious ambivalent feelings toward her mother, which—psychiatrists tell us—often cause pathological mourning. If a bereaved person harbors unconscious anger toward the deceased, he or she may unconsciously need to continue to grieve as a punishment for having committed imaginary crimes against the dead.

Palm leaves and icons were no longer memorial enough. Anna now set out to create a grander monument. In 1907 she persuaded the Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton to hold a Mother’s Day service to mark the second anniversary of her mother’s death. She anonymously donated money for a memorial picture of her mother and for a table for the Sunday school, and she provided five hundred carnations—her mother’s favorite flower—for the mothers in the Andrews congregation. At her urging several Philadelphia clergymen also preached on motherhood that Sunday in their own churches.

The following year, the Andrews Methodist Church officially proclaimed the third anniversary of Anna Reeves Jarvis’ death to be Mother’s Day. Special music and sermons in honor of mothers filled Grafton churches. Grafton florists sold out of carnations. Anna donated seven hundred blossoms to the church, but she was not present herself.

She had been busy in Philadelphia for months, organizing a Mother’s Day committee that included the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer , department store magnate John Wanamaker, Henry J. Heinz, the food manufacturer, and her brother Claude. That same afternoon, John Wanamaker opened his massive Philadelphia auditorium for a special Mother’s Day program. Anna addressed the crowd for over an hour on the glories of motherhood and proposed that Mother’s Day be celebrated universally. Wanamaker later said that he “would rather have the honor of establishing this Mother’s Day than … be the King of England.”

A friend wrote Anna that she was “not at all surprised” that Mother’s Day “met with universal approval.” “I trust,” she noted, “that you will live to see the day observed in every church and mission in America—the world will be better for it, I am sure.”

Over the coming years, Anna would write thousands of letters to public officials eliciting support. Endorsements from politicians willing to become honorary vice-presidents of the movement flooded her home at 2031 North Twelfth Street, Philadelphia. In 1910 West Virginia governor William Glasscock issued the first Mother’s Day proclamation, asking that all West Virginians “attend church on that day and wear white carnations.”

State after state joined the movement. “From the Atlantic to the Pacific,” a London paper reported, “every man, woman and child will shortly be wearing a white carnation.” “White, black, and yellow, native-born and new-come to the land joined the celebration,” said the Pittsburgh Gazette. At the Philadelphia House of Detention, a magistrate distributed white carnations to forty young men under arrest. The Northern Pacific Railway gave the flowers to its diners. Even the normally unsentimental Mark Twain wrote, “I do not know how many more anniversaries of Mother’s Day I will see, but on those that I have remaining I will wear a white flower, the emblem of purity and my mother’s love.”

Anna’s correspondence mounted. She took a leave of absence from Fidelity Mutual and never returned. Memorializing mother became her life; in December, 1912, she incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association. Most politicians seemed willing to take a firm position in favor of motherhood, and on May 10,1913, with no real debate the House unanimously passed House Resolution 103, stating that “the American mother is the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration … [and does] so much for the home, the moral uplift, and religion … that as a token of our love and reverence for the mother, the President and his Cabinet, United States Senators, Representatives of the House, and all officials of the Federal Government are hereby requested to wear a white carnation or some other white flower Sunday, May 11, in observance of Mother’s Day.”

Opponents of woman suffrage eagerly adopted Anna’s cause as their own. Woodrow Wilson—then still opposed to votes for women—wore a carnation to Washington’s Central Presbyterian Church. In New York, the Reverend Dr. Christian F. Reisner issued a Mother’s Day warning from his pulpit: “Motherhood is the school of the true woman. … The mother who spends six years with her children will know far more than the woman who neglects her duty in that way for social and political matters.” Women, he warned, should beware “lest they lose the power of motherhood.”

If mother becomes “a mother to the Municipality, who is going to mother us?” asked antisuffragist leader Marjorie Dorman. She recalled how she felt as a little child coming home from school, calling out to mother. “If there came no answering call ‘in the kitchen’ or ‘here in my room,’ a chill fell on us and the very spirit of life seemed to have vanished. How empty the place suddenly became—how loud and lonely sounded the ticking of the clock in the dining room.” “How,” she asked, “may a woman enter the public arena and run as far and as fast as a man if little hands cling to her skirts?” Women in politics had two choices, she thought, either “dropping the baby” or “refusing to feel the pressure of its little round head against her heart.”

But Anna herself was in favor of woman suffrage: she meant only to honor women and feminine values; she often adopted an antimasculine tone. Men, she argued, already had their holidays. New Year’s Day honored Father Time, Washington’s Birthday celebrated the Father of our Country, and Thanksgiving venerated the Pilgrim Fathers. Males, she wrote, were honored for their sacrifice in war, but “no loyalty or sacrifice surpass [es] those of mothers and wives who have given for their country’s defense lives more precious to them than their own. …”

Some suffragists tried to link motherhood and suffrage. The Women’s Political Union in 1914 offered a Mother’s Day prize of five dollars for the “best baby belonging to a suffragist mother” to show the world that ” ‘votes for women’ means better babies.” A New York Methodist minister argued in his Mother’s Day sermon that same year that it was much better for a man to take care of the children while his wife went out to vote, than to baby-sit while she might be “out playing bridge or maybe tangoing with some other man.”

Anna hoped primarily to inspire simple gestures: a letter to mother, a carnation in the lapel—mementos that “enable poor and rich alike to keep the day dedicated to the being whose name is first lisped by a little child and the last whispered by the dying soldier, ‘Mother.’ “But it all now began to get away from her. In Boston, for example, Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald launched a gala Mother’s Day municipal picnic. Between fifteen and twenty thousand mothers and children went to Franklin Park to enjoy orchestras, vocal quartets, brass bands, and hurdy-gurdies. Carrying flags and colored insignia, they watched Punch and Judy shows, absorbed lectures on infant hygiene, danced—some with Honey Fitz himself—and soaked up the sun and fresh air. The day ended with a mass pledge of allegiance to the flag.

Anna at first accepted support where she could get it. Her spokesman in Congress, Alabama senator Thomas Heflin, later a vitriolic anti-Catholic supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, introduced the proposal she had set as the capstone of the Mother’s Day drive in 1914.

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.

“Investigate for yourself,” she wrote in an apparently unmailed letter to the Detroit Free Press in 1932, “the annual rake off of Hering and his woman operator [Margaret McClure, Fraternal Order of Eagles historian] and their side, and you may understand why Hering wants to be a Mother’s Day ‘pa.’ … It is not any light thing for a person or publication to attack a woman of gentility and sincerity in a damaging way, and exploit some man (entire stranger) as the originator and responsible person for an achievement that has been this woman’s life work of time, thought, expenditure, and achievement.”

In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a new Mother’s Day proclamation reasserting the principles in President Wilson’s original document but noting as well that because of the Great Depression there “are throughout our land today an unprecedentedly large number of mothers and dependent children who … are lacking many of the necessities of life.” Anna exploded. “There is ONE DAY in the year we do not talk POOR MOTHERS and ask charity for them,” she said. “Your mother can never be poor with your love.”

In 1934 Postmaster James A. Farley planned to issue a three-cent Mother’s Day stamp reproducing Whistler’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother . Anna asked for an audience “at the White House (preferably Thursday, 22d [February], as I shall be in Washington then) for a better understanding re Mother’s Day celebration, and the proposed stamp for it.” Anna believed the stamp idea came from Hering and the American War Mothers. “This stamp,” she alleged, “is one of the cleverest tricks that any women surely ever put over on a President so gracious as to see them.” The Post Office removed the words “Mother’s Day” from the stamp and added a vase of carnations to the painting.

Four years later, Anna suggested to President Roosevelt that Mother’s Day be built around the theme of “Making Mother’s Day Safe for Mother in 1938.” She sent him an article she had written condemning the national accident rate. All American accidents, she reasoned, “either involved a mother herself or someone dear to her, and brought her heartache and sorrow.” She suggested that a campaign be launched “making repairs [which] will give needed employment to many persons out of work. …” Everyone should, she pleaded, call attention to the “uselessness of the loss of life” and proclaim the message of “live and let live.”

Anna dissipated Claude’s huge estate during the Great Depression. Living alone with Lillie, now failing and increasingly paranoid, Anna became a pathetic figure. By the late 1930’s, she only occasionally sallied forth on the streets of Philadelphia, clutching a satchel of press releases and pictures of herself taken just after her mother’s death. Mostly she stayed home behind the drawn curtains at 2031 North Twelfth. She hung the sign “Warning, Stay Away” in her window; got an unlisted telephone; installed a Philadelphia “busybody,” a third-story projecting mirror that allowed her to see who was at the door without opening it. Her maid was instructed to open the door only at the sound of a certain knock.

The once-elegant house with its marble foyer, Victorian bric-a-brac, stained glass, mahogany fireplaces, and copperroofed conservatory had become a dilapidated fortress. The neighborhood deteriorated, too. A barber nearby posted a sign: “Get a shave and take a clean mug home to mother.”

Her press releases became more and more strident. “ WHAT WILL YOU DO? ” one asked. “How will you help us to maintain Mother’s Day sacred basic standards, and to rout charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, truest Movements and celebrations?” “Like Mother herself,” she wrote, “its founder and co-workers have scrimped along without working funds and under crushing handicaps. …” Others, who “would take the coppers off a dead mother’s eyes,” have “feasted on our cause. … Can their persecution, prosecution, shredding (of) our cherished work, be longer endured?”

One Mother’s Day toward the end of her life, a reporter posing as a deliveryman won a private interview. “She told me with terrible bitterness,” he remembered, “that she was sorry she had ever started Mother’s Day.”

As Anna moved into her seventies, her vision failed steadily and she seemed to live on nervous energy alone. Her squabbles with Lillie became neighborhood gossip. Instead of accepting her blindness, Anna came to believe that she was being kept in a dark room as punishment for some crime. In 1943 friends had her placed in a sanitorium in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

A policeman found Lillie dead in the kitchen of the house the next year. Anna grieved anew at this final loss, calling “Lillie, Lillie” into the darkness. Impoverished, blind, and, finally, deranged, she died in 1948. Buried next to her mother, she never knew that some of the expenses of her last years had been paid anonymously by grateful florists.

When, in 1951, workmen entered the old red-brick house on North Twelfth following its sale by a great-niece, they found the tons of paper that Anna had saved. A picture of Mother Jarvis, wreathed in holly, hung in the front room, and in an urn nearby rested the desiccated palm leaves from her funeral.

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