Cheat Sheet

  • Mother’s Day was started in 1914, after Anna Jarvis successfully lobbied congress. By 1920, she was the most fierce opponent of the holiday.

  • In 1934 a postage stamp honoring mothers caused Jarvis to contact Eleanor Roosevelt to have distribution halted.

  • Jarvis was a crazy person: Just wait until you find out what she did with a “Mother’s Day Salad.”

In 1925, a woman named Anna Jarvis stormed into a Philadelphia meeting of the American War Mothers, a charity group for mothers who had sons serving in the United States armed forces. Jarvis was absolutely furious at the group’s efforts to raise money by selling white carnations in honor of Mother’s Day. She raised such a fuss that the Mother’s called the police, Jarvis was arrested on charges of disturbing the peace, and was led away from the meeting “kicking and screaming.”

What’s incredibly strange about this incident is Jarvis herself. It was through her tremendous efforts in lobbying Congress that made Mother’s Day come about in the first place. It wasn’t easy, but she successfully honored her late mother by having the nation recognize the holiday starting in 1914. Because of the extreme commercialization of the holiday, within six years she did an about-face and became Mother’s Day most outspoken critic.

Mothers good, Mother’s Day bad

Prior to the American War Mothers’ meeting, Jarvis penned a press release in the Chicago Tribune that read, “WHAT WILL YOU DO to rout charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?”

Photo by FPG via Getty Images – A portrait of the founder of Mothers Day, Anna Jarvis, circa 1900s.

Apparently “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and other termites,” included charities. This may have been appropriate criticism, as at the time there was little regulation of charity groups, but those harsh words hardly applied to American War Mothers. It must’ve been the fact that they were raising money through selling white carnations, which happened to be Jarvis’ mother’s favorite flower.

When Jarvis’ mother died in 1905, she poured over sympathy cards from friends and loved ones and became inspired to create a holiday to honor the mother she loved so dearly. In 1908 she organized the first Mother’s Day event in Grafton, West Virginia, and distributed 500 white carnations during the event. Then, through a furious letter-writing campaign, the issue was raised before Congress. It was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.

“I hope and pray that someone, sometime,” she wrote. “Will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.” But the sentiment behind her efforts was soon lost.

Be careful what you wish for

Retailers and florists, in particular, immediately seized on the holiday for commercial purposes and adopted the white carnation as the official flower of Mother’s Day. Things got much worse when the United States government decided to create a stamp honoring mothers, and for the image, the famous painting Whistler’s Mother was chosen. Jarvis was enraged at the choice for the mother (it was her mother that led to the founding of the holiday after all) and became further incensed when they added a vase of white carnations to the stamp.

Anna-Jarvis-Mother's-Day-Whistler's-Mother-James-Whistler-postage stamp
Photograph by National Gallery of Victoria via Getty Images – “Honoring mothers on Mother’s Day” postage stamp was issued in 1934. It’s an adaption of Whistler’s portrait of his mother.

Jarvis became even more upset as the years went on, as she spent nearly the entirety of her inheritance to unsuccessfully trademark “Mother’s Day.” Preprinted greeting cards began exploiting the holiday too, and she once wrote, “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”

In the 1930s, she demanded an audience with the President of the United States and was taking shots at First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt was trying to use Mother’s Day to raise money for charity, and Jarvis wasn’t having it. Eventually, she began actively lobbying congress to get the holiday removed, and worked at it just as furiously as she lobbied to create the holiday in the first place.

Losing her mind (did she have it in the first place?)

In another incident in Philadelphia, Jarvis was dining in the tea room at Wanamaker’s department store. She noticed a sign on the wall advertising a “Mother’s Day Salad.” She decided to order the salad, but rather than eat it she threw it on the floor. Then, she paid the bill and angrily walked out.

In the waning years of her life, Jarvis was said to have walked around showing photographs to people of herself around the time of her mom’s death. Eventually, she was admitted to Marshall Square Sanitarium, which was an insane asylum. She died in 1948 penniless, and despite the fact that she virtually created Mother’s Day, she never became a mother herself.

During her time at Marshall Square, she never asked how she could afford to stay there because no one had the heart to tell her some grateful florists were footing the bill. One thing is for certain, Jarvis was crazy about Mother’s Day. When she died, a letter on the wall in her bedroom was found, and it captured her efforts in a nutshell. It was from a little boy, and it read, “I am six years old and I love my mother very much. I am sending you this because you started Mother’s Day.”

Related reading