Years after she founded Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis was dining at the Tea Room at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. She saw they were offering a “Mother’s Day Salad.” She ordered the salad and when it was served, she stood up, dumped it on the floor, left the money to pay for it, and walked out in a huff. Jarvis had lost control of the holiday she helped create, and she was crushed by her belief that commercialism was destroying Mother’s Day.
During the Civil War, Anna's mother, Ann Jarvis, cared for the wounded on both sides of the conflict. She also tried to orchestrate peace between Union and Confederate moms by forming a Mother's Friendship Day. When the elder Jarvis passed away in 1905, her daughter was devastated. She would read the sympathy cards and letters over and over, taking the time to underline all the words that praised and complimented her mother. Jarvis found an outlet to memorialize her mother by working to promote a day that would honor all mothers.
On May 10, 1908, Mother's Day events were held at the church where her mother taught Sunday School in Grafton, West Virginia, and at the Wanamaker’s department store auditorium in Philadelphia. Jarvis did not attend the event in Grafton, but she sent 500 white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower. The carnations were to be worn by sons and daughters in honor of their own mothers, and to represent the purity of a mother’s love.
Spreading the Word
Mother’s Day quickly caught on because of Jarvis’s zealous letter writing and promotional campaigns across the country and the world. She was assisted by well-heeled backers like John Wanamaker and H.J. Heinz, and she soon devoted herself full-time to the promotion of Mother’s Day.
In 1909 several senators mocked the very idea of a Mother’s Day holiday. Senator Henry Moore Teller (D-CO) scorned the resolution as "puerile," "absolutely absurd," and "trifling." He announced, "Every day with me is a mother's day." Senator Jacob Gallinger (R-NH) judged the very idea of Mother's Day to be an insult, as though his memory of his late mother "could only be kept green by some outward demonstration on Sunday, May 10."
This didn't deter Jarvis. She enlisted the help of organizations like the World’s Sunday School Association, and the holiday sailed through Congress with little opposition in 1914.
The floral industry wisely supported Jarvis’s Mother’s Day movement. She accepted their donations and spoke at their conventions. With each subsequent Mother’s Day, the wearing of carnations became a must-have item. Florists across the country quickly sold out of white carnations around Mother’s Day—newspapers told stories of hoarding and profiteering. The floral industry later came up with an idea to diversify sales by promoting the practice of wearing red or bright flowers in honor of living mothers, and white flowers for deceased moms.
Jarvis soon soured on the commercial interests associated with the day. She wanted Mother’s Day “to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” Beginning around 1920, she urged people to stop buying flowers and other gifts for their mothers, and she turned against her former commercial supporters. She referred to the florists, greeting card manufacturers and the confectionery industry as “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”
In response to the floral industry, she had thousands of celluloid buttons made featuring the white carnation, which she sent free of charge to women’s, school and church groups. She attempted to stop the floral industry by threatening to file lawsuits and by applying to trademark the carnation together with the words “Mother’s Day,” though she was denied the trademark. In response to her legal threats, the Florist Telegraph Delivery (FTD) association offered her a commission on the sales of Mother’s Day carnations, but this only enraged her further.
Jarvis’s attempts to stop the florists’ promotion of Mother’s Day with carnations continued. In 1934, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Mother’s Day. They used a painting colloquially known as Whistler’s Mother for the image, by artist James Whistler. Jarvis was livid after she saw the resulting stamp because she believed the addition of the vase of carnations was an advertisement for the floral industry.
Jarvis’s ideal observance of Mother’s Day would be a visit home or writing a long letter to your mother. She couldn’t stand those who sold and used greeting cards: “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.” She also said, “Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”
Jarvis fought against charities that used Mother’s Day for fundraising. She was dragged screaming out of a meeting of the American War Mothers by police and arrested for disturbing the peace in her attempts to stop the sale of carnations. She even wrote screeds against Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise money (for charities that worked to combat high maternal and infant mortality rates, the very type of work Jarvis’s mother did during her lifetime).
In one of her last appearances in public, Jarvis was seen going door-to-door in Philadelphia, asking for signatures on a petition to rescind Mother’s Day. In her twilight years, she became a recluse and a hoarder.
Jarvis spent her last days deeply in debt and living in the Marshall Square Sanitarium, a now-closed mental asylum in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She died on November 24, 1948. Jarvis was never told that her bill for her time at the asylum was partly paid for by a group of grateful florists.
This story originally appeared in 2012.