Julia Ward Howe, left, and Anna Jarvis played a role in the creation of Mother’s Day. Listen to the podcast in the video player above, which was originally published in 2018. | Photos courtesy Wikipedia
For the last 108 years, Mother’s Day has been celebrated annually on the second Sunday in May. Originally seen as a way to honor the achievements of women in what was considered by some to be a male-dominated society, it became widely celebrated and its founder ultimately sought its removal from the calendar.
Its origins can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, but it wasn’t a widely celebrated occasion until the late 1800s. That’s where we begin.
Mothers Day Proclamation
It had been nine years since Julia Ward Howe had published the lyrics to the song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” when the lifelong political activist wrote her Mothers Day Proclamation calling on women and mothers to unite in promoting world peace.
It was 1870 in post-Civil War America. Up to that point, Howe was widely known as a writer and poet with staunch anti-slavery views, 4to40.com reports.
She worked for the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the war, which worked to improve the quality of sanitation for wounded soldiers who had been hospitalized. Her poem, now known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was published by Atlantic Monthly in 1862, according to Womenshistory.org, and was considered the Union’s Civil War Anthem.
Howe’s poem as it appeared in “Atlantic Monthly” in 1862. | Courtesy photo
A champion of women’s rights, she co-founded the New England Suffrage Association in 1868 supporting the 15th amendment, which led to the creation of other women’s clubs and organizations.
During the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s, she wrote what has become known as the Mothers Day Proclamation, which called for world peace and the formation of a congress of women in achieving that end.
“In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace,” Howe wrote.
It was translated into several languages and widely distributed.
The Women’s International Peace Association was formed in 1871 and she became its first president.
Howe campaigned for a ‘Mother’s Peace Day’ to be celebrated every June 2, according to History.com. She pushed heavily for a national holiday recognizing and honoring women and mothers. Her efforts paved the way for Anna Jarvis, who helped establish Mother’s Day in the early 1900s.
The founder of Mother’s Day
Jarvis, who comes from an equally politically active family, was born in 1864 in West Virginia. As a child growing up in Grafton, her mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis, was a feminist involved in various local women’s clubs and, similar to Howe, had cared for many injured soldiers during the Civil War.
Jarvis had a close relationship with her mother, Brittanica.com says, and when her mom died in 1905, Jarvis wanted to honor her in a big way.
“After gaining financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker, in May 1908 she organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day also saw thousands of people attend a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia,” History.com reports.
Success on the local level prompted her to make it a national affair and she began actively campaigning to get it recognized as an official holiday on the calendar. She wrote letters to newspapers and politicians, arguing that American holidays were biased towards male achievements and urged them to adopt Mother’s Day.
Norman Rockwell at work on an official 1951 Mother’s Day poster. | Getty images via BBC.com
By 1912, it was recognized as an annual day in many states, towns and churches. It was officially established as a national holiday in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure recognzing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
“Although Jarvis intended Mother’s Day to be a quiet day of reflection, the day soon grew into a commercial holiday with the exchange of cards, flowers, and other gifts. She formed the Mother’s Day International Association to fight against that commercialization and spent the rest of her life trying — unsuccessfully — to control how Mother’s Day was observed,” according to Brittanica.com.
Jarvis, who remained unmarried and childless her whole life, was 84 when she died on Nov. 24, 1948 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Hallmark started mass-producing Mother’s Day cards in the 1920s. More than 113 million cards are exchanged every year, making it the third-largest card-sending holiday in the U.S. behind Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
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