Skip Navigation

“Profiteers, Charity Charlatans, and Anti-Motherhood Propagandists”
Anna Jarvis and the Enemies of Mother’s Day

By Katharine Lane Antolini


Anna Jarvis, as she appeared in April 1910, during her campaign to have Mother’s Day declared a national holiday. Courtesy of West Virginia & Regional History Center.

In 1933, a week before Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis spent the afternoon in her Philadelphia home composing a lengthy 14-page letter to her “dear cousin.” The home Jarvis shared with her younger sister, Lillian, also served as headquarters for her Mother’s Day International Association (MDIA). Jarvis incorporated the organization in 1912 to legitimize her movement to honor all mothers on the second Sunday in May. Years later, she dedicated the bulk of the association’s resources to defending Mother’s Day from those who tried to exploit it for profit or self-aggrandizement. Jarvis saw threats to her holiday everywhere and took each one to heart. Now, at age 69, Jarvis reflected upon a life committed to a single cause. She thanked her cousin for the opportunity to get “out of my system some pent-up feelings” and her willingness to share her time. “My experiences are a new kind to you,” Jarvis wrote, “but 25 years old to me.”

Nearly three decades earlier, Jarvis had forever entwined her life with Mother’s Day by fulfilling a graveside promise to her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. In 1905, she vowed, “by the Grace of God,” to create a day commemorating American motherhood as her mother once envisioned. “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers’ day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life,” Jarvis recalled her mother’s words at the funeral. “I went directly from the grave to my room and began to plan for Mother’s Day.”

She spent the next three years orchestrating an aggressive letter-writing campaign to any local or national figure—any merchant, minister, or mayor—who could advance her self-proclaimed Mother’s Day movement. Such figures included commercial giant John Wanamaker, humorist Mark Twain, acclaimed minister Russell Conwell, and former president Theodore Roosevelt. She emphasized the need for Americans to take one day out of their busy, selfish lives to remember the “mother of quiet grace, who through her self-denials, devotion, and patience” ensured her children’s brighter futures.

That day finally arrived on May 10, 1908, when the first official Mother’s Day was observed in the United States. Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton hosted the first morning program with more than 400 community members in attendance. It was the church Ann Reeves Jarvis had helped organize in the 1870s and where she had taught Sunday School for more than 20 years. Yet Anna Jarvis didn’t attend that service in her West Virginia hometown. In her place, she sent a telegram detailing the purpose of the day as one to “revive the dormant love and filial gratitude we owe to those who gave us birth” and 500 hundred white carnations. Jarvis, meanwhile, remained in her adopted hometown of Philadelphia to attend the afternoon Mother’s Day service at the Wanamaker Store Auditorium along with 15,000 other people, no doubt drawn by John Wanamaker who devoted his usual advertising space in local newspapers to publicize the event. Jarvis spoke at the service for more than an hour. The Reverend Russell Conwell, so moved by her oration, reportedly told Jarvis that her Mother’s Day idea would honor her “through the ages to come.” 

The popularity of that first Mother’s Day initially gratified Jarvis. She reveled in the “thousands and thousands of persons in all walks of life, with the mother-hunger in their heart” who found Mother’s Day “a blessing, a comfort and an uplift.” She dedicated her life to making Mother’s Day a national and international celebration. By 1911, every state –as well as parts of Canada, Mexico, South America, Africa, China, and Japan—was hosting a Mother’s Day service, a testimony to Jarvis’ determined leadership. Three years later, after countless letters and trips to Washington D.C., Jarvis sat proudly in the gallery to witness Congress formally designate Mother’s Day as a national holiday. The next day, May 9, 1914, she graciously accepted the pen President Woodrow Wilson used to sign the first Presidential Mother’s Day Proclamation.

By 1933, however, Jarvis’ “dear cousin” already knew this early history of the holiday’s origin and didn’t need its retelling in a letter. What consumed Jarvis’ thoughts were the battles to come. The official recognition of Mother’s Day didn’t mark the end of Jarvis’ work. On one hand, she welcomed the holiday’s national designation as a validation of her vision and hard work. But on the other, she never considered Mother’s Day legally part of the public domain, like other national holidays, and refused to renounce her creative ownership or leadership of the observance. Jarvis asserted copyright of the holiday and trademark of the words “Mother’s Day,” “The Second Sunday in May,” and the logo of the white carnation under the incorporation of her Mother’s Day International Association in 1912. Copyright warnings frequently appeared on official association documents to reinforce her claim:

REPEATING: ANY PERSONS OR FIRM THAT USES THE NAME, WORK OR CELEBRATION OF MOTHER’S DAY FOR BUSINESS OR SECURING FUNDS IN ANY MANNER, OR ON PRINTED FORMS (WHETHER PRINTED BY HIM OR NOT) WITHOUT ANTURHOITY EXPRESSED BY THIS ASSOCIATION WILL CERTAINLY BE LIABLE TO PROSECUTION, AND THE DAMAGES SPECIFICALLY SET FORTH BY LAW FOR INFRINGERS.

Her copyright charges were more than a vain desire to maintain national notoriety or to stop the holiday’s crass commercialization, although both were major concerns. Above all, she wanted to defend the day’s original meaning as she had initially fashioned it in 1908. For Jarvis, the holiday was intended to be a “homecoming” and “thank offering” from grateful sons and daughters to their mothers. It was meant to be a personal day, hence the holiday’s possessive singular spelling: Mother’s Day. Likewise, it wasn’t designed to honor just any woman or to encourage market forces to intrude into the sanctity and serenity of family life—rather, it was a day to honor “the mother who in your heart is ‘the best mother who ever lived’” and to give to her the gift of your undivided attention and a “day of gladness and of beautiful memories.”

Jarvis railed against those who challenged both the original intent and copyright of her holiday work. “But without means, and only with sincerity, I have developed Mother’s Day for their envy,” she wrote. From the start, Jarvis had funded her movement primarily from her personal fortune—first, from money inherited from her parents and then with financial assistance from her older brother, Claude, who owned the Quaker City Cab Company in Philadelphia. Jarvis had left Grafton to live with her bachelor brother in 1898. Baby sister, Lillian, joined the siblings in their three-story brickhouse in 1904. Even though Jarvis became the executrix of her brother’s estimated $700,000 estate after he suffered a heart attack in 1926, she lamented how creditors had “looted” the bulk of that fortune within just a few years. Because of her financial situation, she refused invitations to speak at Mother’s Day services, claiming she no longer possessed appropriate clothing to wear.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.