9 Fascinating Facts About the Founder of Mother's Day

Anna Jarvis portrait CROP FOR SOCIAL. Wikimedia Commons
Anna Jarvis portrait
Anna Jarvis founded Mother's Day to honor the sacrifices mothers made for their children. Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

It would be easy to believe that Mother's Day was created by a greeting card company. After all, the day is celebrated with special sales and brunches, lots of presents and massive advertising campaigns.

But the day was actually conceived more than a century ago by Anna Jarvis of West Virginia as a way of honoring the sacrifices mothers made for their children. She was inspired by her own mother, but she was later dismayed by the way the holiday got out of hand. Here are some interesting tidbits about the founder and the day. (And when you're done, don't forget to call your mom.)

1. Her Mom Was Obviously Her Inspiration

Jarvis's mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, helped start "Mothers' Day Work Clubs," teaching women how to care for their children. During the Civil War, she organized "Mothers' Friendship Day," where mothers of Union and Confederate soldiers met to try to promote harmony, according to History.com. The younger Jarvis was inspired by all the things her mother had accomplished with her social work.

2. Her Mom Prayed Mothers Would Be Honored One Day

When Jarvis was young, she overheard her mother praying, "I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother's day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life," Smithsonian reports that Jarvis remembered her mother saying. "She is entitled to it."

3. The Holiday Followed Her Mother's Death

When her mom died in 1905, Jarvis was sifting through all the sympathy cards she received, writes Mental Floss. She underlined all the kind words that praised her mother, reading them over and over. The outpouring of kindness for her mother inspired her to create a day to honor all mothers.

4. Jarvis Chose the Carnation as the Holiday's Emblem

white carnation and blank greeting card
Jarvis chose the white carnation to symbolize a mother's love and encouraged children to write to their mothers. UNIKYLUCKK/Shutterstock

The white carnation was her mother's favorite flower, so it became the symbol for the day. She said it symbolized the truth, purity and charity of a mother's love. Her idea of celebrating Mother's Day was wearing a carnation while visiting your mother or maybe going to church together. Children were also encouraged to write letters to their mothers, sharing the depths of their appreciation.

5. The First Official Celebration Was in 1908

The first official Mother's Day events were held May 10, 1908, at the church where her mother taught Sunday School in Grafton, West Virginia, and at the Wanamaker's department store auditorium in Philadelphia. Jarvis didn't attend the event in Grafton, but she sent 500 white carnations.

6. It Wasn't a Hit With Everyone

Although Mother's Day quickly became popular with the public, not everyone was a fan. Mental Floss reports that some politicians mocked the idea. Colorado Sen. Henry Moore Teller called the idea of a holiday "puerile," "absolutely absurd" and "trifling." New Hampshire Sen. Jacob Gallinger said the idea of having a holiday for mothers was an insult, as though his memory of his late mother "could only be kept green by some outward demonstration on Sunday, May 10." Critics aside, the holiday made it through Congress with little opposition in 1914.

7. The Holiday Quickly Became Commercialized

Mother's Day items for sale
Jarvis became dismayed with how quickly the holiday became commercialized. Imagine if she saw how it's marketed today!. Anatoliy Tesouro/Shutterstock.com

Businesses soon saw the potential in jumping on the Mother's Day bandwagon. Florists, greeting card companies and other businesses created tie-ins to the day, and they all took advantage of Jarvis' story. As Smithsonian writes: "Commercial industries quickly recognized the marketability in Jarvis' sentimental celebration of motherhood. Her themes became central to Mother's Day advertising campaigns. The call to write tribute letters fueled the greeting card industry. The designation of the white carnation emblem energized the floral industry."

8. Jarvis Fought the Commercialization — and Her War Was Legendary

Although originally Jarvis worked with the floral industry, she became disillusioned with how it had been transformed. She publicly denounced the marketing, turned against former business supporters and told people to stop buying gifts for their mothers. She wrote a press release, reports The Chicago Tribune, declaring florists and greeting card manufacturers to be "charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations."

She railed against the U.S. Post Office for creating a Mother's Day stamp using the portrait of Whistler's mother (and not her own mother) on the stamp. She endorsed a boycott of florists who raised the cost of white carnations each May. She stormed a national meeting of the American War Mothers because of concerns over where the funds went from sales of Mother's Day carnations. She reportedly had to be dragged out, kicking and screaming.

9. Jarvis Eventually Disowned the Holiday

So disgusted by the way her pure holiday had turned commercial, Jarvis decided to obliterate it. She went door-to-door, asking people to sign a petition to rescind the holiday, according to Mental Floss. She filed many lawsuits against groups that used "Mother's Day," spending most of her money in legal fees. She even unsuccessfully lobbied the government to remove it from the calendar.

Never a mother herself, Jarvis died penniless and alone in an institution. She was reportedly never told that her bills for her time there were partially paid for by a group of incredibly thankful florists.