On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson announced the first-ever Mother’s Day. Although today’s Mother’s Day is a simple holiday with a long tradition behind it, the origins of the holiday are surprisingly complicated and full of conflict.
The story of Mother’s Day began with Ann Jarvis in 1858. That was the year in which Jarvis, a homemaker from Appalachia, started calling for working for better sanitation through what she called “Mothers’ Work Days.” After the Civil War broke out, Jarvis organized women on both sides of the war to work to improve the sanitary conditions soldiers lived in. After the war was over, she worked to reconcile Union families and Confederate families.
Jarvis had a big influence on social activist Julia Ward Howe. Combining Jarvis’ different ideas and causes, she called for the creation of a holiday to honor mothers after the Civil War ended. She made the call for the holiday as part of a greater call for peace and reconciliation. Ann Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Jarvis, took up Howe’s call and started campaigning for a day to honor mothers. One by one, states across the nation started making Mother’s Day into a state holiday until, in 1914, Congress passed an act to make it a national holiday, which Woodrow Wilson made official on May 9. It soon became a huge commercial success, with companies of all sorts getting in on the act of Mother’s Day gifts and Mother’s Day cards. And that’s when things got nasty.
Anna Jarvis was incensed at the commercialization of the holiday. In the early 1920s, she argued that people should honor their mothers through handwritten letters expressing their gratitude and love, not with cards and gifts bought in stores. She organized nationwide boycotts of the companies which got involved in commercializing Mother’s Day. As she became irate, she threatened to sue any company selling Mother’s Day-related things. She got arrested for disturbing the peace at her protests. She eventually came to disown the holiday entirely.