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Why We Celebrate

Why We Celebrate

How the Founder of Mother’s Day Spent Her Life Trying to Erase the Holiday 

By Annaliese Grellmann 

On the second Sunday in May, we all wake up early to make pancakes, buy a bouquet of flowers, and scribble something sentimental in a card. You might be surprised to know that the founder of the simple spring holiday, Mother’s Day, spent the rest of her life lobbying the government to remove the very holiday she had initially campaigned so heavily for. [1] 

In the mid-1800s, Ann R. Jarvis, an Appalachian mother, created “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” in West Virginia to teach young mothers to care for their children. [2] These clubs were inspired by the grief of losing nine of her 13 children before they reached adulthood. This was not uncommon; throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s estimated that between 15 and 30% of children in the Appalachian region died before their first birthday, largely from epidemics that spread due to poor sanitation. The aim of these “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” was to teach hygiene practices to mothers so that they could create more sanitary living conditions.  

During the Civil War, Ann Jarvis’ activism extended to organizing women’s brigades and encouraging all women to participate, regardless of what side they were on. [3] After the war, she proposed the idea of a “Mother’s Friendship Day” to encourage peace, reconciliation, and unity between the mothers of former Union and Confederate soldiers.  

After Ann Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, wanted to honor her mother’s life and started a campaign to create a holiday to honor all mothers. [4] She campaigned newspapers and politicians, arguing that male achievements were often celebrated, but mothers’ work deserved recognition too.   

Anna M. Jarvis used 500 carnations at the first Mother’s Day event, but years later she was arrested for disturbing the peace at a carnation Mother’s Day fundraiser. Photo from  

Three years later, two Mother’s Day events were held: one at the Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia where Anna Jarvis taught Sunday School and another at a Philadelphia department store that financially backed the event. [5] This caught the attention of the mayor of Philadelphia, who made Mother’s Day a local holiday. Over the next five years many states, towns, and churches joined in on the celebration. In 1914 President Wilson designated the second Sunday in May as a legal holiday: Mother’s Day.  

Anna Jarvis intended this holiday to be an intimate family celebration where children could celebrate the uniqueness of their mother. Many sources say that’s why she campaigned hard to have the holiday called “Mother’s” as opposed to “Mothers’.” [6] On the other hand, some accounts say that there is evidence that she wanted the day to be called Mothers’ Day to emphasize that the day was meant to celebrate the sacrifice of all mothers, not just her own. [7] The rationale behind each argument is valid. Anna Jarvis wanted a holiday where all children would celebrate their own mother.   

After President Wilson’s pronouncement, the holiday grew exponentially. [8] The sale of candy, cards, and flowers grew, creating the notion of the holiday we celebrate today. Anna Jarvis quickly became disgusted by the commercialization of the holiday.  

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On the day of the first Mother’s Day events, Anna Jarvis sent hundreds of carnations to the church. [9] The flowers were meant to be worn by children in honor of their mothers’ love. Initially, she used the floral industry to garner support for the national holiday, and over the years, wearing a carnation became a Mother’s Day necessity. Carnations were quickly selling out, so the floral industry came up with the idea of wearing red or colorful flowers in honor of living mothers and white in honor of deceased mothers in an attempt to increase and diversify sales.  

Angered by the commercialization of the holiday, in 1922, Anna Jarvis endorsed boycotts against florists who raised the price of carnations around Mother’s Day. [10] Three years later, the American War Mothers used the holiday to sell carnations as a fundraiser at their convention. Anna Jarvis crashed their convention and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She went as far as publicly criticizing the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, for using Mother’s Day as a day to fundraise for solutions to lower maternal and infant mortality rates. [11] Eventually, Anna Jarvis rejected the holiday completely and ended her life in debt after spending her inheritance on legal battles against groups profiting from using the name Mother’s Day. [12] 

Despite Anna Jarvis’ passionate campaigning for, then against, the holiday she created, Mother’s Day has become deeply entrenched in the American calendar for the last 107 years. This year, Americans were predicted to spend $28.1 billion on celebrations. [13] Verizon reported that Mother’s Day traditionally has the highest call volume out of any Sunday of the year. [14] The vision for this holiday was never to spend the average $220 on gifts, but to spend a day honoring the love and sacrifices of our mothers. [15] In case you forgot, call your mom or another figure who mothered you and say thank you. You don’t even need a white carnation.  


  1. Pruitt, S. (2019, May 10). Why the founder of Mother’s Day turned against it. History. 
  1. Waxman., O. B. (2018, April 25). The surprisingly sad history behind Mother’s Day. Time.  
  1. Boeckmann, C. & Stonehill, H. (2021, May 7). History of Mother’s Day in the United States. The Old Farmer’s Almanac.  
  1. Editors. (2021, April 30). Mother’s Day 2021. History.  
  1. Ibid.  
  1. Pruitt, S. (2019, May 10). Why the founder of Mother’s Day turned against it. History.  
  1. Waxman., O. B. (2018, April 25). The surprisingly sad history behind Mother’s Day. Time.  
  1. Pruitt, S. (2019, May 10). Why the founder of Mother’s Day turned against it. History. 
  1. Mulinix, J. (2019, May 7). Why Mother’s Day founder Anna Jarvis fought to have the holiday abolishedMental Floss.  
  1. Coffey, L. T. (2017, May 13). The history of Mother’s Day: The story of Anna Jarvis. Today. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Pruitt, S. (2019, May 10). Why the founder of Mother’s Day turned against it. History. 
  1. Moore, C. (2021, May 4). Mother’s Day gifts will cost Americans $220 on average this year. Fox Business. 
  1. Hayes, D. (2020, May 11). Verizon says Mother’s Day calls increased 13% and texts 25% due to COVID-19. Deadline. 
  1. Moore, C. (2021, May 4). Mother’s Day gifts will cost Americans $220 on average this year. Fox Business. 
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