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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Anna Jarvis, Founder of Mother’s Day

May 01, 2010
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Anna Jarvis created Mother’s Day in 1907 as a way to honor mothers by granting them a day of rest and gifting them a carnation and a note. Over the years, however, the holiday became commercialized and was exploited by the flower, card and candy industries, leaving Jarvis deeply disillusioned.

Anna Jarvis’ Early Days

Anna Jarvis was born on May 1, 1864, the tenth of Ann Marie and Granville Jarvis’ 13 children, and one of only four who survived to adulthood. She was raised in Grafton, W.V., and went on to attend the Augusta Female Academy, now known as Mary Baldwin College, in Virginia. After finishing college, she returned to Grafton, where she remained as a schoolteacher for seven years.

From her early childhood, Anna was deeply inspired by the work of her mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, who became her example of what could be done to help others. Ann Jarvis organized Mothers’ Work Day Clubs to teach women the basics of sanitation and nursing. These Clubs remained neutral during the Civil War, tending to soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy.

After the war, Ann organized an annual Mothers’ Friendship Day to help reunite families and communities torn apart by the war. When Anna was only 12 years old, she heard her mother express her wish for a day dedicated to the celebration of mothers across the nation.

Jarvis’ Notable Accomplishments

After her mother’s death in 1905, Anna sought to carry out her mother’s wish and institute a national day to honor all mothers. After tireless lobbying, Anna managed to organize the first Mother’s Day Service on Sunday, May 10, 1907 (some sources say 1908) at Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton.

The ceremony was extremely simple: Anna had 500 white carnations handed out to mothers in the congregation to symbolize the purity of motherhood. Mother’s Day became an official holiday in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson declared it a day of national observance.

According to historian Katharine Antolini, Anna didn’t conceive of Mother’s Day as a holiday, but rather as “an intimate day between you and your mom.” Before long, however, the holiday began to lose its original purity and became a commercial event.

Disillusioned by this turn of events, Anna waged war against the card, candy and flower industries, criticizing them for making money from her idea. “Jarvis became known for scathing letters in which she would berate people who purchased greeting cards, saying they were too lazy to write personal letters ‘to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world,’” writes The Associated Press’ April Vitello.

She organized many campaigns to stop the commercialization of Mother’s Day, and was even arrested for attempting to break up a meeting of American War Mothers who, she claimed, had usurped her white carnation symbol. Nevertheless, her many attempts to restore the holiday’s original simplicity were unsuccessful; Mother’s Day had escaped from her control.

The Rest of the Story

Anna, who never married or had children, retreated into seclusion and converted her house into a shrine dedicated to her mother. The considerable inheritance her father had left her after his death in 1902 faded way during the Great Depression, leaving her poor and alone.

By the age of 80, she was transferred to a mental facility; ironically, the Floral Exchange secretly paid her bills. She remained in the facility until her death in 1948. According to a reporter who visited her before her death, Anna bitterly stated “that she was sorry she had ever started Mother's Day.”

Anna is buried next to her mother in Philadelphia’s West Laurel Hill Cemetery. The site of her birth now hosts a museum dedicated to Jarvis, her mother and all mothers across America.

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