Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia, whose own mother had organized women’s groups to promote friendship between mothers on both sides of the Civil War, originated Mother’s Day. Anna was one of 13 children, only four of whom lived to adulthood. On May 12, 1907, she held a memorial service at her late mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia, handing out hundreds of white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower, to the mothers who attended. Jarvis pushed to have the holiday officially recognized as a day dedicated to expressing love and gratitude to mothers, recognizing the sacrifices women make for their children.

Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day

The popularity of the celebration grew and grew – the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that soon you could not “beg, borrow or steal a carnation.” In 1910 Mother’s Day became a West Virginia state holiday, and in 1914 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation making Mother’s Day a national holiday, to take place on the second Sunday of May.

Although Jarvis had promoted the wearing of a white carnation as a tribute to one’s mother, the custom developed of wearing a red or pink carnation to represent a living mother or a white carnation for a mother who was deceased. Over time the day was expanded to include others, such as grandmothers and aunts, who played mothering roles.

The holiday quickly became a commercialized opportunity for producers to sell flowers, candies, and cards. Anna Jarvis felt this was detracting from the personal and intimate aspects of the holiday and defied this by starting boycotts, walkouts, and even condemned first lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using the day as a means of fundraising.

When the price of carnations skyrocketed, Anna released a press release condemning florists: “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?” By 1920, she was urging people not to buy flowers at all.

Mother’s Day was even dragged into the debate over women’s votes. Anti-suffragists said that a woman’s place was in the home and that she was too busy as a wife and mother to be involved in politics. Suffrage groups responded, “If she is good enough to be the mother of your children, she is good enough to vote.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) American painter and illustrator, at work on an official 1951 Mother’s Day poster. (copyright: Getty Images)

The only one not to take advantage of Mother’s Day was Anna herself. She refused money offered to her by the florist industry. Instead, Jarvis spent the last years of her life trying to abolish the holiday she had brought into being, spending every penny of her small inheritance on her anti-commercialization crusade. One of Anna’s last acts was to go door-to-door in Philadelphia asking for signatures to back an appeal for Mother’s Day to be rescinded.

Anna’s final years were spent in a sanatorium in Philadelphia. There are claims that the floral and card industries secretly paid for Anna Jarvis’s care, but this has not been confirmed.

This year, because of the lockdown, many families won’t be able to treat their mothers to flowers or a day out and instead will celebrate Mother’s Day via a video link. Anna would be delighted with the lack of shopping opportunities, which she felt clouded the purity of her original vision.